Anarchism and the Commune


Anarchism and the Commune

This is the third and final part of a review article on Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, by Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt.

It covers the history of the First International, the workers' movement in which Karl Marx was active from its founding in 1864 and the anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin was active from 1868. It reviews the split in the International, in 1872, in which Marx and Bakunin were the leading figures on opposing sides, and the broad outlines of anarchist development since 1872.

Click here to download all three parts as pdf.
The First International recruited substantially from its activity in supporting workers' strikes. It was initially a conglomerate of many shadings of socialist thought and many people who were not really socialists at all but rather radical democrats. In 1864 all the schools of socialist thought, Marx's too, lacked authoritative, readily-available texts codifying their ideas.

In 1864 nothing written by Marx was in general circulation. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 had had no new edition in any language since 1850. New editions in various languages appeared after 1865, as the International created a reading public for them, but only after.

Marx's "Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy" had been published in 1859; but only in German, and it was a severe economic text, with no immediate politics in it. Marx published "Capital" volume 1 in 1867 (in German), and a French translation came out in 1872-5 (an English translation, in 1886).

By patient argument within the International, Marx won a majority for three key ideas:

One: that strikes and trade unions must not only be supported, but were central to the working class organising and educating itself for emancipation. In a long debate in the General Council with an old Owenite socialist, John Weston, Marx refuted the alleged "iron law of wages" believed by many socialists at the time, according to which capitalism inevitably reduced wages to a subsistence minimum and all battles for higher wages must be fruitless.

Two: that the working class must aim for the expropriation of the capitalists and public ownership of the means of production. (The Proudhonists traditionally looked instead to the growth of a network of workers' cooperatives linked by "fair exchange" and crowding out capitalist production rather than expropriating the capitalists. Bakunin sided with Marx on this).

Three: that the working class must engage in political action (battles for reforms made by law, and electoral action) as well as economic struggle.

The climax of Marx's activity in the First International was his writing of "The Civil War in France", the International's statement of solidarity with the Paris Commune of March-May 1871. This was the major text by Marx likely to be read by the activists of the International.

"Marxism", for the purposes of the 1872 split, meant the ideas expressed in "The Civil War in France", and in the resolutions of the First International.

Engels, later, would summarise his and Marx's argument: "Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat".

In the text itself Marx argued that the Commune was "essentially a working-class government... the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour".

It had shown that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes". The working class must create a new form of state, a semi-state as Lenin would call it.

The Commune had suppressed the standing army and substituted for it the armed people. It was made up of elected representatives who were accountable to their voters and easily recallable.

It was "a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time" - not like a bourgeois parliament, which, at best, limits and demands consultation from an executive government separate from it and standing above it.

It had done away with any separate, privileged bureaucratic corps of unelected state officials. "From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen's wages".

Explaining how his view differed from the anarchists, Marx wrote that "this new Commune, which breaks the modern State power, has been mistaken for a reproduction of the medieval Communes" (idealised by Bakunin, and, later, even more so by Kropotkin). "The Communal constitution has been mistaken for an attempt to break up into a federation of small states". (Bakunin and his friends insisted that the future society must be a federation of small local units). Local liberties should be guaranteed: but "the few but important functions which still would remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally mis-stated, but were to be discharged by Communal... agents".

The "Civil War in France" was the main text on which Lenin would later draw to write his "State and Revolution", and the Bolsheviks to propose the rule of workers' councils (soviets) as the form of a workers' regime.

Although they are warm towards the "council communists", who favoured workers' councils but came to reject a centralised revolutionary party and electoral activity by revolutionary socialists - some of them also to reject trade-union activity - Schmidt and van der Walt make no explicit and definite comment on workers' councils, and in some passages seem to hold on to the pre-1914 revolutionary syndicalist line that trade unions, when smartened up enough, will embody workers' rule.

In any case, a split against a "Marxism" defined principally by "The Civil War in France" was assuredly not a split against a socialism of manipulating the existing state machine or "one-party dictatorship through an authoritarian state".

What did Bakunin and his friends say at the time? They supported the Commune and agreed with Marx on that against the English trade union leaders in the International who recoiled in horror from the Paris workers' revolution and Marx's fierce defence of it. Like the Marxists, they would continue to honour the Commune and celebrate its anniversaries. As far as I know, they gave no direct reply to Marx's swipe at them in "The Civil War".

Bakunin complained that "in order to fight the monarchist and clerical reaction they [the Commune] were compelled to organise themselves in a Jacobin manner, forgetting or sacrificing the first conditions of revolutionary socialism". Kropotkin, later, would be even more critical of the Commune as too "Jacobin".

Marx and Engels, by contrast, later, when the lapse of time had given licence for franker criticism of the Commune than would have been decent at the time of its bloody suppression by the French bourgeoisie, wrote (in effect) that the Commune had not been "Jacobin" enough - not forceful, radical, pushy enough. "In the economic sphere much was left undone which, according to our view today, the Commune ought to have done. The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remain standing respectfully outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake. The bank in the hands of the Commune - this would have been worth more than ten thousand hostages [in terms of pressure on the bourgeois government at Versailles]".

In 1871 Bakunin wrote about his encounters with Marx in the 1840s. "As far as learning was concerned, Marx was, and is still, incomparably more advanced than I... He called me a sentimental idealist, and he was right; I called him vain, perfidious, and cunning..."

In 1872 the distinguishing mark of Bakunin and his friends was still "sentimental idealism" - the sentimental rejection of the necessary means of struggle in the name of a vague scheme for an instant ideal stateless future society.

Marx regarded the Bakunin wing as a relapse of a section of the International into the old utopian socialism.

"We cannot repudiate these patriarchs of socialism [the old utopian socialists], just as chemists cannot repudiate their forebears the alchemists, [but] we must at least avoid falling back into their mistakes, which, if we were to commit them, would be inexcusable".

Relapse was given momentum by the general backlash after the defeat of the Commune. In a similar way, the backlash after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions had led in September 1850 to a split in the Communist League in which the anti-Marx faction, according to Marx, fell into an approach where "the will, rather than the actual conditions, was stressed as the chief factor in the revolution" and "the word 'proletariat' [was] reduced to a mere phrase, like the word 'people' was by the democrats".

Later Plekhanov, in his pamphlet "Anarchism and Socialism", would expound Marx's thought in more detail, arguing that "in their criticism of the 'political constitution', the 'fathers' of anarchy always based themselves on the Utopian point of view", namely on the assertion that human nature favours liberty and solidarity, the state is an artificial imposition, and capitalism is the product of the state.

Bakunin, moving from his native Russia to study in Germany in 1840, became a revolutionary democrat in the 1840s. In 1849 he was praised by Marx for his role in a rising in Dresden.

Arrested after that rising, he spent eight years in jail, mostly in Russia and in atrocious conditions, and then four years in Siberian exile. In 1861 he escaped from Siberia to Western Europe.

Bakunin was still a revolutionary democrat rather than a strong socialist. At first his political plan was to work with the liberal exile Alexander Herzen. Then he flirted inconclusively with Garibaldi and with the Polish nationalist leader Mierosławski.

He came to call himself a "revolutionary socialist". In 1867-8 he and some friends entered and tried to take over the just-launched radical-bourgeois League for Peace and Freedom.

He gave up within a year; but he wrote a elaborate document putting his views to the League - probably the longest and most complete political statement which Bakunin, notorious for rarely finishing things he started writing, ever published. It suggests that he then still saw his "revolutionary socialism" as more extreme than bourgeois democracy, rather than in irreducible class opposition to it.

He acclaimed the "complete emancipation... of industry and commerce... from the supervision and protection of the State"; remonstrated that "the majority of decent, industrious bourgeois" could quite well support his, Bakunin's, programme; limited his social-economic demands to changing "the law of inheritance, gradually at first, until it is entirely abolished as soon as possible"; and made no demand for the expropriation of capitalist property or the collective ownership of the means of production.

Disappointed in the League, he joined the International in 1868. His focus was still on anti-statism, and no doubt he still thought of Marx as "vain, perfidious, and cunning"; but his writings of that time suggest that he was genuinely won over by Marx's ideas as transmitted through the International. They read as paraphrases - with a particular bias and twist, but paraphrases - of the general ideas of the International. He started work on a Russian translation of Marx's Capital, which he would never finish.

Diffuse and restless as ever in his thinking, in 1869-70 he got drawn into an alliance by a demented "nihilist", Sergei Nechayev, who held that the true revolutionary was defined by contempt for all moral standards, including in his dealings with his own comrades, and "must ally himself with the savage word of the violent criminal, the only true revolutionary in Russia".

He recoiled from Nechayev. Bakunin supported France in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and with a couple of comrades made an abortive attempt at an anarchist rising in Lyon (September 1870).

In 1870-2, finding sympathy for his resentments against Marx among Swiss activists of the International, Bakunin led a faction fight which ended in the split of September 1872. Soon after that, in October 1873, he resigned from his local organisation, the Jura Federation, on grounds of ill-health and political disappointment. He spent most of the remaining time before his death in July 1876 in seclusion.

Some of Bakunin's ideas would be developed and codified, from the mid-1870s to World War One, by Peter Kropotkin, a much clearer and more systematic writer than Bakunin. But Bakunin's is not the record of a political figure who could in 1871-2 have represented a distinct "class-struggle" opposition to supposedly stodgier ideas coming from Marx.

The Bakunin wing's opposition in 1871-2 to electoral activity by socialists was not an exaggerated but understandable reaction against socialists allowing that activity to suck in too much of their energies and their hopes. At that time working-class electoral candidates were extremely rare.

Later new issues would arise. Socialists would allow electoral activity to suck in too much of their energies and their hopes.

The general principle established by Marx of the need for socialists to build and seek to broaden out trade unions would be complicated by the rise of trade-union bureaucracies, increasingly separating off into a distinct social layer mediating between workers and the bosses.

Those developments would give new life to anarchism, or at least to that wing of anarchism which swung away from the "propaganda of the deed" (assassinations of ruling-class figures) which had dominated anarchist activity in the 1880s to try to find a new basis in the growing workers' movements.

The revolutionary syndicalism of the decades before World War One was never (despite Schmidt and van der Walt) exclusively or even in majority anarchist; but some anarchists, such as Fernand Pelloutier and Emile Pouget in France, played a positive and important part in developing it.

It became, as Trotsky would put it, "a remarkable rough draft of revolutionary communism". Where the pre-1914 "political" socialists, too often, were content with the general perspective of building up and strengthening the workers' movement, the revolutionary syndicalists worked to transform, to invigorate, to democratise, to educate a workers' movement which they understood would tend to become conservatised and bureaucratised if left to its spontaneous course in capitalist society.

That dimension of socialist activity was taken up by the Communist International in its early years (1919-22), but quickly marginalised as the Communist International became Stalinised. Today groups like the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party leave it marginalised, and in that sense the revolutionary syndicalism which Schmidt and van der Walt celebrate still has ideas to teach us, ideas which need to be rediscovered and redeveloped in today's conditions.

When the IWW leader Big Bill Haywood, in August 1920, read an appeal by the Communist International leadership written to try to convince IWW activists that the International was the best continuation of the IWW's tradition, he exclaimed: "Here is what we have been dreaming about; here is the IWW all feathered out!"

He was right, I think. Schmidt's and van der Walt's scheme, by contrast, is traditional anarchism all feathered up.

Click here to download all three parts as pdf.



Hello Iain.

Would you like to come and debate these issues publicly (or rather, in person as opposed to on the internet) at Ideas for Freedom (9-10 July in Archway)? I would have emailed you personally but I couldn't find any contact details on your site.

Daniel Randall for the AWL

On for a debate?

As Iain will know, AWL has written to him saying:

a. of course there can be an anarchist bookstall at the event - we generally allow pretty much anyone on the left who wants to run bookstalls at our events;

b. we're open to suggestions about the title and format of the meeting, so long as it's broadly about Marxism and anarchism;

c. we think that meeting rooms and creche facilities, etc., should be made freely available for events like our summer school. But they aren't. So we have to charge for the event. But we don't mind making that particular session open to people who have not paid for the whole weekend, taking only voluntary donations from them.

So... on for a face-to-face debate?

1. The Paris Commune Proudhonist?

Yes, the leadership of the Commune included, alongside Blanquists and Jacobins, many left-Proudhonists like Eugène Varlin.

Varlin was a unorthodox Proudhonist, though, because he had come into politics as a strike leader and supported equality for women.

Right-Proudhonists like Henri Tolain opposed the Commune. Proudhon himself, in "The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d'Etat of the Second of December" (1852), had taken a stance of calling on Bonaparte to continue the work of the revolution. As Marx put it, "His [Proudhon's] work on the Coup d'Etat, in which he flirts with Louis Bonaparte and strives to make him palatable to the French workers... must be characterised as not merely bad but base..."

The Commune signalled the disintegration, not the triumph, of Proudhonism. Engels:

"By 1871, even in Paris, the centre of handicrafts, large-scale industry had already so much ceased to be an exceptional case that by far the most important decree of the Commune instituted an organization of large-scale industry and even of manufacture which was not based only on the association of workers in each factory, but also aimed at combining all these associations in one great union; in short an organization which, as Marx quite rightly says in The Civil War, must necessarily have led in the end to communism, that is to say, the direct antithesis of the Proudhon doctrine. And, therefore, the Commune was also the grave of the Proudhon school of socialism. Today [1891] this school has vanished from French working class circles..."

Today Schmidt and van der Walt, and as far as I can see a good few others too, want to disavow Proudhon and say he was not an anarchist at all - that their modern anarchism has no connection with his ideas.

2. Was Marx inconsistent with his 1871 statement that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes"?

Why inconsistent? Supposedly, because Marx thought it possible in England and in some other countries that workers could win a parliamentary majority and use it to dismantle the old state machinery (then, and in those countries, relatively lightweight: that is the point) and build up a new workers' "semi-state".

That is not inconsistent!

What seems more inconsistent is opposing electoral activity absolutely, and yet praising the elected Paris Commune.

3. Kropotkin not idealising medieval communes?

"The Conquest of Bread", first page. "The history of mankind... does not offer... an argument against Communism. It appears, on the contrary, as a succession of endeavours to realise some sort of communist organisation, endeavours which were crowned here and there with a partial success of a certain duration..."

As his examples of that "communist organisation", Kropotkin cites "village communities, for many hundreds of years", and "the medieval cities [which] succeeded in maintaining in their midst, for several centuries in succession, a certain socialised organisation of production and trade".

The anarchist-sympathising writer Paul Avrich, in his introduction to "The Conquest of Bread", puts it more brutally than I would: "What Kropotkin yearned for was the decentralised society of medieval Europe with a few up-to-date trappings".

4. Where does Bakunin insist that the future society must be a federation of small local units?

The nearest thing to a complete manifesto that Bakunin ever wrote, his statement for the League of Peace and Freedom, he entitled: "Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism". Federalism first, notice. And the only socialistic economic proposal in it was the gradual abolition of the right of inheritance.

Bakunin saw the revolution like this: "The spontaneous self-organisation of popular life, for centuries paralysed and absorbed by the omnipotent power of the State, will revert to the communes". (Notice: "revert". Again and again in the writings of Bakunin and Kropotkin appears the idea that their future society is also the natural order of society, which prevailed, and only a few hundred years ago, until the artificial irruption of the State).

He repeats his insistence on federalism again and again. He certainly assumed that the communes will wish to federate on a large scale.

5. Workers' councils

Schmidt and van der Walt do indeed "make no explicit and definite comment on workers' councils", though their book is heavily concerned to explicate an anarchist tradition which they take to have been give its prime statement by Bakunin and Kropotkin, and to state the key ideas of those writers (including a fair amount of "stating the obvious": that they opposed capitalism, favoured workers' struggles, etc.)

They see Bakunin and Kropotkin as forerunners of revolutionary syndicalism, i.e. of a "workers' republic" or "revolutionary junta" (workers' state, in all but a reluctance to use the word "state") organised through trade unions.

Bakunin often wrote pictures of the future like this: "an organization formed by the people themselves, apart from all governments and parliaments, a free union of associations of agricultural and factory workers, of communes, regions, and nations, and finally, in the more remote future; the universal human brotherhood..."

With hindsight you can read Bakunin's ideas about workers' associations as a premonition either of revolutionary syndicalism or of soviet (workers'-council) democracy. The fact that both readings are possible indicates that both are anachronistic.

In the 1860s and 1870s there were no trade unions anywhere near powerful enough that anyone could envisage them becoming, even after a huge leap forward, strong enough to administer the whole economy. The first workers' councils (soviets) were over 30 years in the future (1905).

A more common-sense reading: Bakunin, Kropotkin, and their comrades saw the future society as a spontaneous federation of small units, those small units in turn being formed by voluntary association of individuals. The small units would by definition be workers' associations.

The basic units of their future society were as much (or, as we've seen more) a reference-back to medieval villages (visualised as free associations of working people) as forward to the French CGT or the Russian workers' councils of 1905.

6. Quoting Bakunin out of context?

Here is the passage I quoted, in context:

"And, too, the small group of convinced socialists who participated in the Commune were in a very difficult position. While they felt the lack of support from the great masses of the people of Paris, and while the organization of the International Association, itself imperfect, compromised hardly a few thousand persons, they had to keep up a daily struggle against the Jacobin majority. In the midst of the conflict, they had to feed and provide work for several thousand workers, organize and arm them, and keep a sharp lookout for the doings of the reactionaries. All this in an immense city like Paris, besieged, facing the threat of starvation, and a prey to all the shady intrigues of the reaction, which managed to establish itself in Versailles with the permission and by the grace of the Prussians. They had to set up a revolutionary government and army against the government and army of Versailles; in order to fight the monarchist and clerical reaction they were compelled to organize themselves in a Jacobin manner, forgetting or sacrificing the first conditions of revolutionary socialism.

"In this confusing situation, it was natural that the Jacobins, the strongest section, constituting the majority of the Commune, who also possessed a highly developed political instinct, the tradition and practice of governmental organization, should have had the upper hand over the socialists...."

The argument here is that "setting up a revolutionary government and army" was something which they "had to" do, but which nevertheless inescapably involved "forgetting or sacrificing the first conditions of revolutionary socialism" [i.e. of anarchism: Bakunin then called his ideas "revolutionary socialism", in counterposition to "communism"].

There's nothing in this context about the "revolutionary government" being in the hands of too few people, etc. And if there were, what would that say about your claim (above) that the political organisation of the Commune was a splendid working-out in practice of Proudhon's ideas?

7. Jacobin means rule by a revolutionary minority

Oh? Just that? That's all there is to the French Revolution? Bakunin, rightly, did not think so:

"Let us make it clear, there are Jacobins and Jacobins... There are Jacobins who are frankly revolutionaries, the heroes, the last sincere representatives of the democratic faith of 1793; able to sacrifice both their well-armed unity and authority rather than submit their conscience to the insolence of the reaction. These magnanimous Jacobins led naturally by Delescluze, a great soul and a great character, desire the triumph of the Revolution above everything else..."

8. To say "Bakunin supported France in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war" is a "quite disgraceful misrepresentation".

Bakunin hoped to latch onto French peasants' hostility to the Prussian invaders so as simultaneously to unleash revolution. That went together with, rather than contradicting, his siding with France.

Also, his scenario for this revolution-unleashing is highly manipulative. He does not claim that the peasants want to make a social revolution. He reckons that in their majority they back Louis Bonaparte. But he thinks that their patriotic fervour can be manoeuvred into "unconsciously but effectively destroying the state institutions".

It is not much like a foreshadowing of Lenin's "turn the imperialist war into a civil war". It is much more like George Orwell's naive 1941 scheme of Churchill's England surging into socialism "unconsciously but effectively" during World War Two.

"Within a year, perhaps even within six months, if we are still unconquered, we shall see the rise of something that has never existed before, a specifically English Socialist movement... It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical... But all the same it will have done the essential thing..." (The Lion and the Unicorn).

As Orwell's naivety was governed by a gut patriotism, so also Bakunin's attitude was governed by a gut anti-German feeling and a gut insistence that "the Latins and the Slavs" were the revolutionary peoples.

9. Bakunin proved right on electoral activity?

You might as well say that the utopian socialists who opposed all workers' trade unions and strikes have been proved right by the growth of the trade union bureaucracy, or the submergence into petty trade-union routine, as lay activists, of hundreds of thousands of people who were revolutionaries when young. Or that pacifists have been proved right by the large role of after-effects of the Russian civil war in the growth of Stalinism. Or that those who argue that socialists should not bother with books and study, but instead rely solely on instinct, have been proved right by the follies of academic Marxism.

10. The revolutionary syndicalism of the decades before World War One - was it "exclusively or even in majority anarchist"?

Pelloutier and Pouget were anarchists (and notice that I do not write them out of the history or downplay their contribution). Pelloutier's article of 1895 on "Anarchism and the Workers' Union" is clear, however, that he is proposing a new direction for anarchists, and one that implies a departure from strict anarchism. "Nobody believes or expects that the coming revolution... will realise unadulterated anarchist communism"; but the unions could become at least "a quasi-libertarian organisation".

Griffuelhes was not an anarchist.

In the IWW, Big Bill Haywood was not an anarchist. Schmidt and van der Walt claim Daniel De Leon as an anarchist, but he was not. The IWW today says (accurately, I believe) that the anti-De-Leon faction in the 1908 split comprised "a diverse group of IWW members, including rank and file workers from across the Pacific Northwest, socialists of numerous stripes, and perhaps a handful of anarchists.."

Tom Mann was never an anarchist.

11. Dictatorship of the party and democracy

In any system of government (or "system of governance", or "workers' republic", or "revolutionary junta", if you prefer Schmidt's and van der Walt's terms) there will be a contest between parties, or trends, or schools of thought, for the majority.

Then the majority party rules. In conditions of civil war, it may be apt to call that "dictatorship of the party".

Stalinism rose, not by extending the "dictatorship of the party", but by crushing the party.

More here, in a 1934 article by Max Shachtman.