by Robert Graham
Robert Grahan’s Anarchism Weblog
Wolfgang Eckhardt’s comprehensive account of the split in the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International” – IWMA) between the advocates of working class political parties (Marx and his followers) and the anti-authoritarian revolutionary socialists (anarchists), entitled The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association, has finally been published by PM Press. Although more narrowly focused than my book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, Eckhardt’s book meticulously documents how Marx and his relatively small coterie of supporters tried to turn the International from a pluralist association of workers’ organizations with differing views regarding social change into a monolithic organization committed to the formation of national “working class” political parties whose ultimate object was the conquest of state power. Instead, Marx only succeeded in splitting the International, with the majority of its members and sections re-establishing the International along anti-authoritarian lines, and the Marxist rump soon expiring, with its seat of power being nominally transferred to New York. In this excerpt from Chapter 8 of The First Socialist Schism, Eckhardt describes the attempts by the Marxist controlled General Council to disenfranchise the French Communard refugees in Switzerland who were regrouping after narrowly escaping France with their lives. Particularly noteworthy are the passages by André Leo (1824-1900), the French feminist socialist, denouncing the attempts by Marx, the “pontiff” of the IWMA, to turn the International into a hierarchical organization imposing ideological uniformity on its members.
Marx vs. the Communards
After the Paris Commune was crushed, thousands of Communards narrowly escaped abroad. A few hundred of them fled to Switzerland with the help of the Jura sections, among others. On 3 July 1871, Schwitzguébel smuggled a number of Swiss passports and documents of Swiss citizenship into Paris in a knapsack with a secret compartment. Several members of the Commune who had gone into hiding were able to flee abroad thanks to these papers: for example, the author Léodile Champseix (1824–1900) – famous under the pseudonym André Léo – arrived in Switzerland a half month later. Some Communards settled in Lausanne, Berne or Jura but most in Geneva.
There they were soon confronted with the simmering conflict surrounding the split in the Romande Federation and the underlying debate about political-parliamentary or social-revolutionary socialism, which they were unable to keep out of for long. It is not surprising that very few Communards – with the memories of the greatest revolution of the century still fresh – would be sympathetic to the tame line of the Geneva fabrique, which was integrated in local politics. Just as Bakunin and his friends in the Alliance had two years before, the Commune refugees soon came to realise that the spokesmen of the fabrique – who set the agenda of the Geneva International – were primarily following their political ambitions (electoral alliance with the bourgeois parti radical, Grand Council elections of 12 November 1871, etc.).
The work of organising the sections was left by the wayside. Even the Geneva central section was much too involved in local politics to organise educational initiatives or the exchange of ideas between workers in the different trades as was its duty. The Communards thus began toying with the idea in July 1871 of forming their own section in order to create propaganda for France. It took until 6 September 1871 for the Geneva Communards to form the Propaganda and Socialist Revolutionary Action Section (Section de propagande et d’action révolutionnaire-socialiste) –section of propaganda in short. On 8 September, their Administrative Committee (Comité d’Administration) sent an application for membership along with their programme and section rules to the General Council.
The spokesmen of the Geneva fabrique quickly saw the section of propaganda as unwelcome political competition and thwarted their admission in the International: two weeks after the membership application was sent, Perret –secretary of Committee of the Romande Federation in Geneva – proposed a resolution at the London Conference ‘in order to avoid new conflicts’: it called to mind art. 5 of the Basel administrative resolutions which stated that the General Council must consult with the corresponding Federal Council before it decides on the membership application of a section. The message was received – the minutes state: ‘The General Council takes note of this recommendation.’ And so the section of propaganda didn’t even receive a reply even though it applied to the General Council a second time on 4 October and third time of 20 October 1871.
Perret was perhaps also responsible for the General Council’s continued silence: he sent a perturbing letter to Marx on 8 October 1871 saying that the members of the then dissolved Alliance section were supposedly behind this new section; according to Perret, the section of propaganda was ‘the rebirth of this sect under another name’. In reality there were only two or three former members of the Alliance among the 62 members of the section of propaganda.
So the situation was already quite tense when Égalité published an authorised advanced copy of various resolutions of the London Conference on 21October 1871. The Communards finally found out that effective immediately it was ‘no longer allowed […] to form separatist bodies under the names of sections of propaganda, Alliance de la Démocratie socialiste, etc.’ in the International according to resolution no. 16. By being lumped together with the dissolved Alliance and defamed as a separatist body, the section of propaganda was confronted with resentment that they had never before thought possible. It became immediately apparent that the General Council had been purposely delaying accepting the Communards’ section because of political reservation. For the Communard André Léo, these reservations flew in the face of the established mores of the International. On 2 November 1871, she wrote the following in the Révolution Sociale, the newspaper of the Commune refugees in Geneva:
“And I, who have until now believed that the International Association was the most democratic, the broadest, the most fraternal association one could dream of; the great mother, with immense breasts, of whom every worker of good will is the son. […] may the goddess Liberty help us! For we have violated the last papal bull in divulging these things to the Gentiles24 and in debating the infallibility of the supreme council. Now, we too are threatened with excommunication, and we have no other course than to yield our soul to the demon of Anarchy for what remains for us to say.”
In the week after the advanced copy of the conference resolution appeared in Égalité, the section of propaganda held a meeting where the decision was made to publicly protest against the resolutions of the London Conference and to invite other sections and federations to join this protest. Zhukovsky was given the mandate to go to Jura to inform the sections there of this initiative. The meeting in Neuchâtel held upon his arrival on 29 October 1871 called for a joint letter of protest to be adopted at the next congress of the Jura sections and circulated internationally. A circular on 31 October announced that a federal congress would be held on 12 November 1871 in Sonvillier.
The need for public protest became more apparent after all of the resolutions of the London Conference were released the week before the federal congress. In a further article for the Révolution Sociale, André Léo wrote:
“From the beginning of the International Association to this day, when we heard the good bourgeois refer to it as a secret society, constructed after their manner, i.e. hierarchically, with a watchword, a secret council, the old pyramid, finally, with God the Father, an Old Man of the Mountain or a Council of Ten at its summit, we shrugged our shoulders and told them, not without pride: – all of this is a bunch of old tales! You know nothing of the new spirit; your worn molds cannot contain it. We who want to destroy your hierarchies are not about to establish another. Each section is sovereign, as are the individuals who compose it, and what binds them all is the profound belief in equality, the desire to establish it, and the practice of our Rules: the emancipation of the workers by the workers themselves; no rights without duties, no duties without rights. Everything is done in the broad daylight of freedom, which alone is honest and fruitful; we have no leaders, for we do not recognise any, only an administrative council. But now, alas! – now we bow our heads before the accusations of Mr Prudhomme, or rather, we deserve his admiration; we suffer this supreme insult, because the resolutions published here construct the old pyramid in the International as elsewhere: ‘It is forbidden,’ ‘it will not be allowed,’ ‘the General Council has the right to admit or to refuse the affiliation of any new section or group’, ‘the General Council has the right of suspending, till the meeting of next Congress, any section of the International’. I beg your pardon; are we mistaken, here, as to the code? This is an article of the law on the general councils of France, made by the Assembly of Versailles: ‘The executive power shall be entitled to suspend the council that …’ – No, that’s right, but the article is the same in both laws, – ‘henceforth the General Council will be bound to publicly denounce and disavow all newspapers …’ – By our holy father the Pope, where are we? Bismarck has turned the heads of everyone from the Rhine to the Oder, and at the same time that Wilhelm I made himself emperor, Karl Marx consecrated himself Pontiff of the International Association.”
The strong words shocked Guillaume and his friends, however, the manner in which Léo concluded her article was irreproachable:
“We have just begun to understand that true unity does not consist in the absorption of all into one, that strange equation, that fatal delusion which has mystified humanity for so many centuries! And if asked how else to establish unity, most of us would hesitate to answer, because it is not only a matter of finding new means but of changing the ideal itself. – The new unity is not uniformity, but its opposite, which consists in expanding all initiatives, all freedoms, all conceptions, bound only by the fact of a common nature that gives them a common interest, upon which – on their own, and by different routes, however winding they may be – free forces converge. This is natural and universal harmony in place of the narrowness, the vicious unfairness of the personal plan. It is this autonomy of the citizen, achieved through the autonomy of the primary social group, the commune, that France has just tentatively sketched out with a hand wounded by the sword of despotic unity. This is the second act of the great Revolution that is beginning, the realisation after the revelation, the performance after the promise. And the International Association, a natural agent for this task, would, following these mad and narrow minds, repeat the experiments that were made, and made so badly, between 1802 and 1871! This cannot be. Let all the old world’s politics go that way; socialism has nothing to do with it, for it must take the opposite path, that of the freedom of all in equality.”
Wolfgang Eckhardt, The First Socialist Schism (Oakland: PM Press, 2016), pp. 103-106