The Madness of Karl Marx

How and Why He Sundered the First International

bakunin and marx from russia with love

I recently read Wolfgang Eckhardt’s The First Socialist Schism, and what I discovered disturbed me. A friend had told me that in it Karl Marx accused Mikhail Bakunin of wanting to be the dictator of the First International. The slapstick incongruity of the charge piqued my interest, and left me wondering if perhaps it were Groucho and not Karl who was its author. What I learned, however, was anything but amusing.

I knew that there had been a clash between the two, and that it grew personal, and that the conflict led to a split in the International Working Men’s Association [IWMA]. I knew that Marx had made allegations that few believed then and fewer do now. I also knew that each man had shamed himself with ethnic bigotry: the Jew for the Slav, and the Slav for the Jew. I knew that each accused the other of being an agent of the bourgeoisie. What I hadn’t yet encountered was the visceral, primitive hatred Marx held for Bakunin, and the Machiavellian depths to which he and Friedrich Engels fell in order to banish their despised rival, even at the expense of the IWMA itself.

Marx’ private correspondence is littered with abuse. He refers to Bakunin as a “savage,” an “idiot,” “ignoramus,” “charlatan,” “beast,” and worse. He continually asserts that Bakunin’s positions are “hollow fancies” devoid of theoretical or analytical value, “empty phrase-mongering.” He also bemoans Bakunin’s lack of formal education, an odd stance for Marx to take as his friend, collaborator, and patron, Friedrich Engels, has less. Reviewing his clash with Bakunin, Marx emerges as a man with an unhealthy, corrupting obsession, which led him to act in a reprehensibly unprincipled manner.

Still somewhat incredulous, despite Eckhardt’s careful documentation, I wanted confirmation. So I read Robert Graham’s We Do Not Fear Anarchy, We Invoke It, and found it there. The authors, like me, are anarchists, and are quite sympathetic to Bakunin. Nevertheless, the cases their respective books make are persuasive, as I believe you will agree. I have read considerably more which treats, directly or indirectly, on this topic (McClellan’s, Mehring’s and Ruehle’s biographies of Marx, assorted material by or about Bakunin, and Stekloff’s history of the IWMA), but only Eckhardt’s and Graham’s books will be footnoted below as they contain information the others omit.

It would be convenient to think of the respective forces aligned behind Bakunin and Marx as anarchists and Marxists, but not every tendency in the former grouping can be indisputably so categorized, and the latter contained Jacobins and Blanquists. Likewise, the terms libertarian- and authoritarian-socialist are problematic as the dividing line is notoriously difficult to locate (for instance, to which does Rosa Luxemburg belong?). For expediency’s sake, I will refer to them as statist- and antistatist-socialists.

The Central Issue: The State

Antistatists believe socialist organization requires that workers have a free hand to run their workplaces (liberty), and for these workers to voluntarily affiliate in mutually devised networks with workers in other industries in mutually agreed forms and terms (federation) for the purpose of exchange, with no authority above them (a state) to interdict their decisions–socialism implemented from below. On the other hand, statists believe that such decentralized organization can neither effect social revolution nor fend off counterrevolution. Rather, they believe the state must be seized, altered perhaps but not destroyed, and remain in place for an indefinite period. Its coercive power will then be used to safeguard the revolution from enemies within and without, and to enforce its directives–socialism implemented from above. Given the state’s importance, therefore, political activity, including electoralism, is a central part of statist strategy. Many statists refer to this as the dictatorship of the proletariat, a phrase coined by Marx, which will end when it has eliminated capitalism worldwide, whereupon it will grow obsolete and slowly disappear.

Both positions have evolved, of course, but a debate in that day might have gone like this:

Antistatist: The state must be eliminated, and be replaced by a federation of workers with each workplace with absolute control over itself and none over the others; each independent but interdependent, and interwoven in voluntary, agreed organization. Worker control at the point of production is the sina qua non of socialism, and the best deterrent of counterrevolution. This method of organization promotes efficiency, as well as solidarity. The state, by its very nature, creates the divisions, ruptures, discontinuities, which prevent the growth of these efficiencies which would otherwise naturally and spontaneously occur in the absence of external control.

Statist: Such haphazard production isn’t the solution; in fact, it’s part of the problem. Properly functioning economies require the balancing of production and consumption, which in turn requires central planning, and it is only through such organization that maximum efficiency is achieved. And such planning can only be done by a state, the very thing you disavow. Moreover, the state is essential for the fight against counterrevolution, for which you need armed services, police, espionage and intelligence agencies, all directed from a coordinated center. There is no alternative.

Antistatist: This coordinated center now forms the nucleus of a new ruling class — and we are right back where we started. The revolution will have failed.

Statist: This new state will be a workers’ state and will disappear when its historic mission is fulfilled, once capitalism is purged from the Earth and workers are trained to run the systems previously administered by the state.

Antistatist: States don’t emancipate, they regulate. They disenfranchise. And given that it is unprecedented, the idea that any state is going to willingly dissolve itself is a conceit — and a dangerous one. That is the reactionary kernel at the core of all statist-socialist theory.

And a state cannot train workers to “manage” when it holds the monopoly. States don’t empower, they enfeeble. They docilize, inure workers to subordination, turn them into zombies. Workers will, as before, be relegated to the status of observer, alienated from the decision-making process, denied participation.

Statist: No, you can’t see the forest for the trees. This will be a workers’ state! It will differ from all other types — and hence be incomparable to them — in that it will operate in the interests of the vast majority. The workers’ state has no history, and cannot be judged by any existing empirical standard. Workers will control this state from below by means of delegation of authority and the right of immediate recall. The workers’ state will not only eliminate exploitation, but its very possibility. It will eradicate all prospects for counterrevolution — even for itself.

Antistatist: That is impossible. Even if this magical, utopian self-liquidation — the Immaculate Suspension — with which you delude yourself, did occur, it will, by virtue of the hierarchies of power and subordination it creates in the execution of its managerial function, leave behind a quiescent, compliant populace, and a terrain pockmarked with inequitable social relations in which incubate the germs of new tyrannies — ideal conditions for counterrevolution. Remove these inequalities and you avert the threat, but this no state can do as it is the state which concocts them, and which cannot operate without them.

Statist: On the contrary, these inequalities, as you call them, are what enables the revolution to gain victory. To defeat the class enemy and prevent its remnants from proliferating and coalescing into a force of sufficient magnitude that it could imperil the revolution, one must exert domination over it. That requires political power, state power. And if the antistatist program prevailed, and it attained its goal of the equal diffusion of political power in each member of society, that would be an ideal nursery for reaction, as there would be no native force capable of defeating it.

And so on.

So for antistatists, who require the unregulated power of producers to conduct their own industrial activities, the statist program is a dystopian nightmare fraught with dialectical contradictions. Likewise, for statists the antistatist program is a chimera: it will never achieve its goals as its decentralized structures cannot possibly withstand the challenges from the forces of reaction for which any revolutionary movement must account. So for one the state is indispensable, for the other an insuperable obstacle. Each believes the other program is hopeless. Perhaps the only thing on which they agree is their irreconcilabilty.


The International Working Men’s Association [IWMA] is formed in London, in 1864. The founders invite Karl Marx, the prestigious author and scholar then resident in London, to join and give the inaugural speech, which he did. He is elected to the General Council [GC], and helps to write the IWMA’s rules.

A group of revolutionaries in the League of Peace and Freedom, Mikhail Bakunin prominent among them, unhappy with the its bourgeois character, formed the Alliance for Socialist Democracy and quit the League. They then applied to the International for admission, in 1868, and are at first rejected. Already outnumbered, Marx is apprehensive about the Alliance as it makes his opposition all the more formidable.

Marx would eventually vanquish his foes, but would all but destroy the IWMA in the process. His tack would be to accuse the Alliance of having a clandestine wing, (which was, to some extent, true), and that this underground cadre, while masquerading as a revolutionary cell, was, in fact, conniving to undermine the workers’ movement. Which, Marx insisted, they sought to do by taking over the International and making Bakunin its dictator. Acceptance or rejection of this extraordinary claim, to a greater degree than ideological differences, determined the composition and order of battle of the respective camps.

Secret societies never had been a concern for Marx. As a revolutionary organization, police repression necessitated that many of the IWMA’s sections conduct their affairs covertly. There had always been clandestine groups on the IWMA’s periphery, and perhaps some nearer its core. The Blanquists, Marx’ allies, were renown for their emphasis on disciplined secrecy.

The issue over which this battle would be fought was the state. The statists favored participation in politics, including elections, and suggested each federation should form itself into a political party. The antistatists, believing that political engagement by the proletariat strengthens rather than weakens the ruling class, preferred direct action and trade union agitation. While each group had its hardliners who wished to impose its praxis on the entire IWMA, a large majority of the membership backed an autonomous, pluralist IWMA wherein each section determined its own course in accordance with its own views and as befit its particular circumstances. The chief opponent of pluralism in the IWMA was Karl Marx, who would come, after a series of adept maneuvers had cleared a path, to advocate a statist-only International.

Before the Basel Congress

* Marx objects to the phrase “equalization of classes” in the Alliance’s program. In his correspondence with Bakunin, he states that this phrase could be interpreted as harmony between classes rather than their elimination. Marx says that he believes that that is not what was meant, and that it was a “slip of the pen.” The wording was altered to remove any ambiguity. Over the next few years Marx would refer to this innocuous episode again and again in the series of libels he would author against Bakunin. [E,5]

* Sigismund Borkheim, at Marx’ instigation, wrote an article based on something Engels had written decades before, in which he rehashes the latter’s charges: Bakunin a pan-Slavist (i.e. nationalist), and the witting or unwitting tool of Russian imperialism. The statists would make this charge repeatedly. [G, 98] Publishers loyal to Marx spread these allegations. [G, 118]

* Marx claims Bakunin wants to become dictator of the European workers’ movement and privately threatens “excommunication.” [E,7]

* Alliance admitted but in Marx’ personal correspondence he states that it was not his wish but he felt that he had no choice. [G,108]

Basel Congress, 1869

* Having heard of the allegations being made against him by Marx and the statists, Bakunin demands a hearing (court d’honneur) and is acquitted for lack of evidence by unanimous vote. [E,23]

* Trade unionist (syndicalist) policies adopted: the “free association of free producers.” [G,109]

* One of the issues which became contentious was the legal right of inheritance. Bakunin and his followers believed its abolition would advantage the working class, while Marx disagreed. Marx welcomed the debate as he wanted to give Bakunin a “thump on the head.” I confess, dear reader, that I find this matter irrelevant and quite tiresome. Graham’s account of the exchange is charitably brief, and I have made no effort to acquaint myself more fully. So, for the little it is worth: I found Marx’ argument the sounder, but those who endured the entirety voted for Bakunin’s position, and by a wide margin. The final tally was Ignoramus 32, Marx 23. Risibly, Marx claimed victory as with the abstentions Bakunin was denied an outright majority. The latter’s position was eventually adopted. [G,190]

This was the only time the two antagonists would meet in an IWMA congress, let alone square off head-to-head. The lopsided outcome suggests either that Bakunin’s faction comprised a majority, or that he was persuasive enough to induce defections in the statist ranks, neither good for Marx. Whichever the case, it was a humiliating rebuff. Marx was frustrated in Basel at every turn: the Congress rejected his program in favor of syndicalism; the man whom he hoped to discredit was vindicated by the court d’honneur; and the long-awaited blow he had hoped to deliver in the inheritance debate resulted instead with Marx, and not his nemesis, nursing a fractured ego. All of these defeats must have made a lasting impression. Thereafter, Marx would never tire of disparaging his opponent.

Basel Congress Aftermath

* Despite Bakunin’s acquittal, the same lurid accusations are again pressed by the statists. In Paris, Moses Hess alleges that Bakunin was an intriguer whose purpose was to undermine the IWMA, and that he was colluding with the police. A similar attack is published in New York. [G,125]

* When criticism of the GC is published by the antistatist press, Marx insists that they have no right to complain about reformist policies in that reforms could only be implemented by governments and thus the antistatist’s antipolitical position was contrary to IWMA’s policies. Therefore, he argued, such criticism could not be expressed in an IWMA-affiliated periodical as it was contrary to the Association’s rules. [G,126]

* Marx justifies the GC’s taking direct control of the London Section saying that the English working class lacked revolutionary spirit and only the GC could give it to them. [G,127]

* Marx claims that anarcho-syndicalism is a “caricature” of his own ideas. [G,130]

* In April of 1870, Paris Federation calls for abstention from political activity. [G,131]

* Marx issues a “Private Communication” to the Francophone federations in which he reheats all the old canards against Bakunin. A member of the Belgian Federal Council, Eugene Hins, a statist fairly hostile to the opposing camp, took exception:

We have not yet been able to discuss [Marx’] letter…I do not know how the Belgian Council will reply, but for my part I find [it] supremely unfair to Bakunin…Marx criticizes Bakunin’s proposal on inheritance, forgetting that the [GC] itself has presented a proposal on this subject…

I am unable to bow to the great scholars who believe they have judged a man when they say: He has not sudied. If this means [he] has not studied…the working class and their needs, I shall…say that this man is incompetent, but if it means that he has not studied books, I shall say…this is a matter of perfect indifference. This is not a movement to be led by…scholars from their chambers…

Hins ends by saying that “Marx’ incrimination of Bakunin: it seems to me unworthy.” He then suggested his letter be forwarded to Marx. [E,38] Marx eventually responded to Hins with a missive full of “coarse insults.” [E,39]

* When Cesar de Paepe, then in the statist fold, also expresses sympathy for Bakunin, Marx panics and ask that the references to his intended victim be expunged from all existing copies of the “Private Communication.” [E,39]

* Marx describes Bakunin’s ideas as “empty babblings, a garland of…hollow fancies.” [E,42]

* One might think Marx would be chastened by the reception of his “Private Communication,” but apparently it had the opposite effect. He produces his conspiratorial “Confidential Communication.” Here we find Marx, as we often will, off his meds:

Bakunin now attempted to reach his goal–the transformation of the [IWMA] into his personal instrument–by other means…he proposed…the inclusion of the inheritance question in the agenda of the [Basel Congress]. The [GC] agreed in order to give Bakunin a thump right on his head. Bakunin’s plan was this: the Basle Congress…will show the world that it is not Bakunin who has come over to the [IWMA] but the [IWMA] that has gone over to Bakunin. Obvious result, the [GC]…would have to resign the Basle Congress would transfer the [GC] to Geneva, that is, the [IWMA] would come under the dictatorship of Bakunin. [E,42]

Sadly, this is not unique. Eckhardt’s book, and to a lesser degree Graham’s, are peppered with such convulsive rants from Marx. To Bakunin’s every breath Marx imputes sinister intent, invariably accompanied by a train of ad hominem assaults. The slightest criticism, from anyone, is met with infantile peevishness, again and again. Those who dare hold a contrary opinion are denounced as simpletons, and subjected to crass abuse. Another example, from the same screed:

Shortly after the [IWMA] Brussels Congress the [League of Peace and Freedom] held its…at Berne. Here Bakunin acted the firebrand and–be it remembered en passant–denounced the occidental bourgeoisie in the tone in which Muscovite optimists are accustomed to attack Western civilization–to palliate their own barbarism. He proposed a number of resolutions, which, absurd in themselves, were intended to instill fear into the bourgeois cretins and allow Monsieur Bakunin to…enter the [IWMA] with eclat. It suffices to note that the programme proposed…contains such absurdities…in short, an insipid improvisation, calculated purely to make a short-lived effect. [E,41]

His analysis of Bakunin’s tone on that occasion must indeed have been inspired as he wasn’t present, and was relying on second-hand accounts.

It must also be noted here that Marx’ claim that Bakunin made a motion at the Congress to move the GC to Geneva is a lie as elsewhere he states explicitly that Bakunin’s motion was defeated. There is no mention in the minutes of any such motion, nor in the correspondence of any of the attendees save for the overheated Marx. Moreover, Bakunin, hearing of this nonsense, penned a response in which he declared that he did not support moving the GC from London. [E,42]

* Bakunin researcher, Arthur Lehning, says the “Confidential Communication” contains not “a single, accurate fact.” [E,44]

* Historian and Marx biographer, Franz Mehring, says of it that “It is hardly necessary to enumerate the many errors [it] contains…the more incriminating the accusations it makes…the more baseless they are in reality.” [E,44]

Background of the London Conference

The Franco-Prussian War caused the cancellation of the 1870 congress. In that year a split occurred in Switzerland. The Alliance applied for admission in the Romance Federation and were denied. They appealed and won, and their presence tipped a subsequent vote on political participation in favor of abstention, causing a split. The losing side, the Genevans, appealed to the GC saying that although they lost the vote, their delegates represented a larger membership, which they did. The GC sided with Genevans, causing the winning side, the Jura, to appeal. There the matter stood until the London Conference.

The Paris Commune made a proper 1871 congress impossible, but the GC resolved to hold a conference instead. Not all of the federations were informed of its convocation, and participation was extremely limited, with the national delegates outnumbered by the GC delegation by a wide margin.

It was now two years since the last GC election was held.

Before the London Conference

* Marx asks Nikolai Utin to dig up dirt on Bakunin. [E,48]

* Marx writes to his son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, warning him about Alliance member, Paul Robin. [E,55]

I call your attention to the presence of Robin, Bakunine’s agent who, at Geneva, did all in his power to discredit the GC…and to prepare Bakunin’s dictatorship in the [IWMA]. He has been expressly sent there to act in the same sense. Hence this fellow must be closely watched without becoming aware of having a surveillant at his side.

* Marx issues a third communication on Bakunin reiterating the same charges:

That this damned Muscovite has succeeded to call forth a great public scandal within our ranks, to make his personality a watchword, to infect our…Association with the poison of sectarianism, and to paralyse our action by secret intrigue…You are now sufficiently informed to counteract Bakunine’s movements within our Paris branches.

The charge of sectarianism, absurd as it is coming from Marx, will also be leveled again and again. The “great scandal,” as Marx reckoned it, was the split in Geneva.

Lafargue replies:

I have spoken to several people and tried to discover their opinion of [Bakunin] without telling them mine, unfortunately, I saw that all favoured him. An open attack…is impossible, and here is why: for all those who know him he represents radical ideas, while his Swiss opponents are reactionaries… [E,57]

* The Genevans claim the the Alliance was never formally admitted to the IWMA. Paul Robin, on behalf of the Alliance, presses the issue with the GC in multiple letters, asking specifically if the confirmation the Alliance had received from the GC was authentic. Engels procrastinates, even writing to Robin that the GC was too busy to respond. Eventually Engels concedes that, in fact, the Alliance was properly admitted. [E,73]

* On August 6, 1871, the Alliance in Switzerland officially dissolves itself stating:

Considering that [the GC’s confirmation of Alliance’s membership in the IWMA] annihilates the calumnies and intrigues for which the section of the Alliance has been the pretext: In order to render these impossible in the future…the Alliance for Socialist Democracy declares it self dissolved. [E,78]

* Marx insists that the convocation of the conference must not be leaked to the press. [E,85]

* The GC stipulates that no theoretical questions will be addressed at the London Conference. [E,85]

* Marx suggests that only some of the GC should have voting rights, and that the precise number should be fixed after it is determined how many total delegates will be attending. [E,85]

* Engels proposes that the GC should have the right to allocate itself as many votes as it wants, leading even long-time loyalists to protest. [E,86]

London Conference, 1871

* The GC had taken upon itself the authority to add people to the Council, with the effect that when the Conference begins, a majority of the GC had never been elected by a general congress. [G,169]

* The GC decides it will resolve the Swiss conflict. A five-member commission is appointed with Marx at its head. The commission meets in Marx’ home. A few witnesses are invited to observe but have no vote.

* Witness Paul Robin leaves the meeting in disgust:

I get up then, but they want to keep me there; I refuse saying that I have said all that I have to say. [Marx’ ally] Utin exclaims that he declares to me that he accuses me directly…To which I reply, withdrawing, that I throw his accusation back at him with the utmost contempt. One can see that it would have been unworthy…to continue to play any role in this comedy…[E,89]

* Another witness, Anselmo Lorenzo wrote:

But if all of this…was carried out in the Conference sessions with a semblance of regularity, within the commission a hatred was manifested with cruel shamelessness. I was present at the home of Marx for a meeting charged with deciding the question of the Alliance and there I saw [Marx] descend from a pedestal on which my respect…had him positioned, to a level most vulgar. Afterwards various supporters of his would descend further still, practising their adulation as if they were vile courtiers before their master. [E,90]

* The commission, without hearing from the Jura, finds for the minority declaring that the majority was only “nominal,” and tells the majority to form its own section despite IWMA rules which stipulate that there can be only one federation in a given locality. [E,63]

* Given that most of the national federations were not present for the Conference, The GC appoints certain of its own members to represent them, and, thus, accredits these representatives with federations’ votes. For instance, Engels was made the representative of Italy and got to cast the latter’s votes (in addition to his own as a member of the GC).

* The London Conference, after a vote, declares that the working class can only act as a class when it organizes itself into a political party and mandates the various national federations do so.

* Ex-Communard, Pierre-Louis Delahaye, proposed that instead of political parties the syndicalist Basel resolutions should be restored. Astonishingly, Marx responds that no such resolution was adopted at Basel. Proof of his error provided, Marx then states that a free federation of free producers is an unattainable wish. Because, he maintains, unions represent only the labor aristocracy and that the IWMA is “the only society to inspire complete confidence in the workers.” [G,171]

What is Marx doing in denying that the Basel syndicalist resolution had passed? Floating a trial balloon? Trying to gauge the relative strengths of the opposing forces? Had he forgotten the blow delivered to him at Basel? Impossible! If no one had confuted his indiscreet claim, what would have been the result? What was his purpose in telling a lie which could be, and was, so easily debunked?

London Conference Aftermath

* When the absent federations learned of what had transpired, they reacted angrily, complaining that the GC was acting like a “government” when it had no such authority. They discuss ways of preventing such usurpation in the future. Among the suggestions: limiting the GC to an office of correspondence and statistical bureau; letting each federation appoint its representatives to the GC; eliminating it altogether.

* The dissidents produce the Sonvillier Circular which condemns the London Conference’s edicts and call for a restoration of the Basel resolutions, which, they argue, reflect the opinion of the great majority of IWMA membership.

* A group of former Paris Communards, then resident in Switzerland, form an association to conduct propaganda and apply for admission to the IWMA. It was denied. Marx insists that these ex-Communards are acting at Bakunin’s instigation and privately refers to them as the “riff-raff among the refugees.” These riff-raff, as Marx slights them, necessarily include Andre Leo, the noted feminist, as she penned a scathing response.

* In Italy, a revolutionary pamphlet was written to the attendees before a workers’ congress in Rome. A copy of it was sent by Carlo Cafiero to Engels in England without divulging the identity of its composer. Engels roared back that it was an “excellent production” which he would “undersign…in all its parts.” Cafiero then told him that it had been authored by Bakunin.

Indeed it was an “excellent production” and was received as such by the workers. Because of it, the IWMA’s membership in Italy soared. [E,127]

* When Wilhelm Liebknecht, Marx’ faithful servant, published an article in which its author, Carl Boruttau, denounced the malice and “Russophobia” being directed at Bakunin, Marx wrote to the publisher:

You can rest assured that I am better informed than you about the intrigues within the International. So when I write to you that letters from Boruttau with any bearing at all on the International…should not be printed…you have simply to make up your mind whether you wish to act against us or with us. If the latter is the case, then my instructions…should be followed to the letter.

* When challenged upon the legality of the London Conference and, hence, its rulings, Engels responds with comical lies:

Furthermore. if any observations on the legality or method of its convening…this should have been done before or during the Conference…You complain of the ‘small number of delegates’…for that the [GC] is not to blame. Nonetheless, Belgium, Spain, Holland, England, Germany, Switzerland and Russia were directly represented. As to France, it was represented by practically all the members of the Paris Commune then in London, and I hardly suppose you would dispute the validity of their mandate.

Certainly the GC was to blame for the small turn-out as they failed to notify everybody that the Conference was to take place. Complaints were made before and during the Conference. And, as Eckhardt writes:

In reality, only Belgium, Spain and Switzerland were “directly represented.” Holland and Russia were not represented at all. The other nations were only indirectly represented by their corresponding secretaries in the [GC]…The validity of the Communards’ mandates…cannot be contested because there were no such mandates. The Communards taking part…were delegates of the [GC]. [E,128]

* Paul Lafargue, Marx’ son-in-law, sent to Spain “in case of a split.” [E,182]

* At the instigation of Paul Lafargue, the Madrid federation’s paper prints the names of some members of the Alliance in Spain, who were then subject to police persecution. Outraged by this horrific betrayal, those responsible are expelled by the Madrid Local Federation. The outcasts then form the New Madrid Federation, and are immediately recognized by the GC in London, once again violating the one locality/one federation rule. [E,249]

* The IWMA in Italy, at a congress in Rimini, renounced the London Conference’s resolutions and disassociated itself from the GC. Furthermore, they urged the other nations not to attend the next statist congress but to send their delegates instead to an antistatist gathering to be held in Switzerland. [G,185]

* Bakunin beseeches the Italians to reconsider knowing that their absence could strengthen the statists at the next congress. His pleas, however, falls on deaf ears.

* In response to the Sonvillier Circular, Marx and Engels produce the enigmatically entitled “Fictitious Splits in the International.” It is written in French, a language only a small fraction of the GC can speak. It was too long, Marx groaned, to be translated. Misinformed of its contents by its authors, the GC sanctioned it by vote. Predictably, it recycles the same allegations against Bakunin. [E,202]

* Like his previous forays into character assassination, this effort was not well received. Geneva Communard, Aristide Claris, editor of their newspaper, took particular exception to the charge that the antistatist press was acting in the same manner as bourgeois publications:

This is…absurd. You have not read a single issue (of that journal) of which you speak, gentlemen of [the Fictitious Splits]. Otherwise I would be forced to acknowledge that you have a conscience blacker and a head squarer than I thought. But no, you place tendencies on trial, you make epilogues, you quibble, you pervert the acknowledged facts at whim, and you answer with ridiculous slanders the accusations of authoritarianism and ambition that we have the right and duty to address to you. [E,211]


The [GC] sought to hide an important question of principles under a heap of gossip and personal hostility which it had no shame in recounting, presenting it to the international as a document of great importance. Men to whom most of the facts narrated were unknown…and…could not be competent judges, did not hold back from putting their names to that mass of lies and malicious insinuations…blindly obeying the beck of Marx. And this is the probity of the [GC] which aspires to the absolute government of the [IWMA]…? [E,207]

* As to the accusation that Bakunin was a would-be dictator and his supporters were besotted fanatics, Guillaume wrote:

Bakunin…has always been treated by us…on a frankly equal basis, and if this seems peculiar to Karl Marx, it is because in his contempt for men, in whom he sees only more or less docile instruments…he cannot imagine an organization in which no one commands and no one obeys. [E,211]

Background to the Hague Congress

Holland was chosen by the GC as it was known that Bakunin would be unable to travel there for fear of being arrested en route. Protests were lodged from various quarters but they had no effect.

Bakunin was charged by Marx and the GC with embezzling money from a publisher. He had received an advance to translate Marx’ Das Kapital (yes!) into Russian. He sent the translated pages along in installments as he generated them. Then the publisher received a letter which contained an unveiled threat of harm if he didn’t release Bakunin from his obligation and accept the quantity of work theretofore produced in exchange for the advance. The publisher recognized that the letter was not in Bakunin’s handwriting, and didn’t believe that it was sent at Bakunin’s instigation. It is thought that it was the handiwork of Sergei Nechaev, Bakunin’s on again/off again friend, who hoped to free his comrade for revolutionary activity.

Bakunin claimed he knew nothing of the matter, and in his correspondence lamented the loss of his only source of income. True or not, he was to be tried in absentsia as he would be unable to attend.

Before the Hague Congress

* As ever, the statist press is full of denunciations of Bakunin. [E,296]

* When delegates from the opposing camp write to the GC asking for money for travel expenses, they are told that sufficient funds do not exist. When supporters ask for same, Engels, a wealthy capitalist, personally pays their way. [E,300]

* The IWMA was illegal in France after the Commune and, for all intents and purposes no longer exists. Marx issues mandates to loyalists whose views do not represent French workers’ opinion.

* Marx gives credentials to a supporter to represent a non-existent IWMA section. [E,292]

* When asked by a British delegate how it happened that a Scottish journalist, Maltman Barry, ended up with a mandate from a German-speaking section in the United States, Marx told him that it was none of his business. Barry wrote for the Conservative Party’s press. [E,292]

Hague Congress

* It has now been three years since the last GC election.

* Seeing all the delegates assembled by the GC, the foreign delegations demand an investigation of all mandates. [E,306]

* The Spanish delegation say votes should be weighted as they were in the resolution of the Romance split. Their suggestion is voted down by Marx and cohort. [G,191]

* Antistatists suggest that each delegation should appoint representatives to the mandate commission. They are unsuccessful and a commission of seven is established, with five from the manufactured majority, including Marx. [E,306]

* French mandates were not reviewed by the Commission ostensibly for security purposes. [E,307]

* Some of those who undersigned the “Fictitious Splits” express regret saying they were not aware of its contents. [E,304]

* The London Conference’s resolution necessitating political participation is reaffirmed.

* Engels moves that the GC be moved to New York City, and it was agreed. An attendee describes the scene:

It was some time before any one…spoke. It was a coup d’etat, and each one looked to his neighbor to break the spell. [E,337]

* Bakunin and Guillaume are expelled based largely on the unsupported accusations of Nikolai Utin. Guillaume is allowed to speak on his own behalf. An observer wrote:

The hall was full of people, [most] were workers, and Guillaume’s speech…produced such an impression on them that Marx, finally getting angry, shouted that [the translator] had not translated correctly, which was quite [incorrect]… [E,341]

Crisis averted? The IWMA wrested from the clutches of spies and saboteurs? The splits were, Marx insisted, not real, merely the work of intriguers who sought to subvert the workers’ movement. It was never about personal control of the Association and its theoretical orientation, it’s about fighting subterfuge, right? Robert Graham:

[Charles] Longuet…future son-in-law of Marx…argued that anyone expressing [antistatist] views, such as “Guillaume and his teacher and master, Bakunin” could not be allowed to “belong to the [IWMA].” [G,192]

* Blanquists bolt Congress in disgust. Later they produce a pamphlet entitled “Revolution and the International,” in which they denounce Marx.

Hague Congress Aftermath

* Former Marx supporter, Jules Johannard, expresses contempt for Marx and Engels:

There is a manoeuvre which I do not hesistate to qualify as unworthy on the part of [Marx and Engels] whom I had been used to consider honest. For the rest, I shall tell you all that is going on here; since the very first day it has been nothing but a centre of intrigues, they have not feared to sacrifice the [IWMA] for the sake of having their proposals adopted.

* Utin is pardoned by the Tsar and returns to Russia where he grows rich from defense contracts awarded him by his pardoner.

* Antistatists meet in St. Imier and decide to attempt to reunite with the statist minority, but to continue on as a pluralist international.

* The British Federation, hitherto solidly in Marx’ camp, splits, with the majority declaring the Hague Congress unfairly constituted and its resolutions invalid, and committing themselves to the rules such as they existed previously. They would eventually join the pluralist  international without abandoning their commitment to political activity. John Hales wrote for the majority:

The Congress…completely changed the constitution of the [IWMA]. Political action had been made obligatory, “and that…action was to be under the control…not of the country itself, but of the GC sitting 3,000 miles away.” It meant turning adrift all the trades unionists, and the abandonment of the right of private judgment. Under those resolutions no Section could take part in any movement, or initiate any action, except under the instructions, or with the permission of the [GC] in New York, and if that Council sent word to do anything, however absurd…it would have to be done, for the [GC] could, under the new power with which it had been invested, suspend any Section or Federation without assigning any reason for so doing. [E,389]

* Bakunin resigns from antistatist International, and dies shortly thereafter. Before he did, trying to make sense of all that transpired, he accuses Marx of being an agent of the bourgeoisie.


Never have I read anything which gave me so much to reconsider.

What of Marx’ speech on the Paris Commune of 1871, the “Civil War in France,” that is so often cited with pride by Marxists? Did he mean any of the effusive praise he lavished on the Commune? We knew that it contained errors (credit to those Marxists, like Schulkind, who have called attention to them), but what about the rest of it? The Communards put into practice antistatist ideas that Marx had for decades opposed. Was the homage sincere, or did it camouflage a deeper reality? The Communards were, after all, known as Les Fédérés. They cared not for the state or centralization — they explicitly endorsed federalism. Did Marx really come to embrace what he had not long before maligned as a “caricature” of his own ideas? The Commune made a mockery of Marx’ sterile contention that workers could not express themselves as a class without forming a political party; likewise his equally ridiculous determination that it was only the IWMA which commanded the proletariat’s complete confidence–the Communards neither drew inspiration, nor sought guidance, from the International. The Commune was an actually existing, in-the-flesh repudiation of Marx’ revolutionary strategy, proof of the errancy of some of its central, defining features, the ones he was promoting so fiercely in his battle with the antistatists. Did he really have a change of heart?

Evidently not, as he was simultaneously engaged in the effort to oust IWMA members espousing just such views. If Marx had indeed been driven leftward by the sublime example of the Paris Commune, then his campaigns in the International could have no other motive than power. If he hadn’t, then “Civil War in France” is a deception, a face-saving operation. It was, then, to borrow Marx’ phrasing, “in short, an insipid improvisation, calculated purely to make a short-lived effect.”  Bakunin observed that the Commune “was so striking that the Marxists themselves, who saw all their ideas upset by the uprising, found themselves compelled to take their hats off to it. They went even further, and proclaimed that its programme and purpose was their own…This was a truly farcical change of costume, but they were bound to make it, for fear of being overtaken and left behind in the wave of feeling which the rising produced throughout the world.” [G,154]

Either way, the “Civil War in France” is incontrovertible evidence of Marx’ duplicity.

Marx’ stature as an academic is secure. Historical materialism — the idea that evolution in the modes of production are the engine of social change, and that these developments shape consciousness — is the most important idea I know or can imagine, exceeding in scope and portent, in my view, those of Freud or Darwin. It is the greatest contribution to human understanding yet made. Nevertheless, Marx’ political program has been, as Bakunin predicted, a catastrophe, and his personal behavior in the movement was utterly disgraceful. It is hard to reconcile Marx the scholar and Marx the revolutionary; to believe that Das Kapital and “Confidential Communication” were written by the same hand; to marry the erudition with all the venality. Has there ever been a man so easy to acclaim and impossible to respect! Reading Eckhardt’s and Graham’s books, I was left wondering what I have failed to learn in my fifty-six years that I still find this Marx so difficult to accept.

We might forgive Marx his Machiavellian machinations if he believed the accusations he so often repeated. These charges — spy, charlatan, agent provocateur — are damning charges. They are divisive, toxic charges, the kind that embitter, that wreck social movements and shatter solidarity, the kind that cause wounds which never heal, that turn long-time comrades into enemies. Many a movement has been undermined in this way, with the poison often introduced by infiltrators from the state’s security apparatus. These are the kind of concerns that should only be voiced after great care has been taken to assess them, and when no doubt remains.

Yet clearly this is not the case with Marx as he is recruiting people to unearth incriminating information with which to smear Bakunin, and is doing so long after he has first made the allegation. If he had evidence to warrant the charge, then he would need only to adduce it, yet such was never forthcoming. It’s been well over a century now and there is still nothing to indicate that Bakunin was anything but a committed revolutionary. I’m sure Marx’ legatees in the Kremlin would have been only too happy to provide inculpatory evidence from the state archives had they uncovered any. One cannot be convinced of something for which there exists no corroboration, certainly not one as discerning as the author of Das Kapital. Inescapably, Marx made the charge spuriously, or at the very least without being convinced of its veracity. It was a filthy ploy, and that is loathsome! It is appalling to find this vicious weapon, so frequently and skillfully employed by the police, in Marx’ hand.

Marx’ treachery does in no way invalidate his program nor validate his rival’s (socialism in one country, Brest-Litovsk, war credits, Austro-Marxism, Euro-Communism, workers’ inspection, twenty-one conditions, war communism, NEP, committees of the poor villages, entryism, committee of workers’ control, forced labor camps, factory prisons, dual subordination, and the dozens of proletarian rebellions brought to heel by Marx’ spawn in Moscow, suffice for that!), nevertheless, even if we judge him misanthropic enough, philistine enough, to believe that his line was correct not only in general thrust but in every nuanced particular, and that any assertion to the contrary is, and must necessarily be, flawed; even if we grant that megalomania, at least in his advanced stage, cannot conceive of dissent as anything other than stupidity, and thus can see in opposition only diversion, ambition or sabotage; it would still not justify the craven breach of revolutionary solidarity which occurred in Spain, nothing can. Even if we were capable of such self deception as to believe that Marx was not among the conspirators, and had no idea why his son-in-law was in Madrid or what he was up to, he still welcomed the federation of traitors into the IWMA. The turncoats shouldn’t have been admitted. They should have become the objects of revolutionary contempt!

For his part in this outrageous betrayal, I will never look at Marx in the same way.

Marx sought power for the GC, and successfully countered attempts by the federations to curb its growth. He then used that power to strike at Bakunin. But in so doing he confirmed his adversary’s belief on the corrosive, corrupting effect of authority. The minority had, in result, expelled the majority — as Marx must have foreseen — and a number of the his supporters had quit or gone over to the other side. So there he sat, his throne now secure, delivered from the scourges of pluralism and control from below, king of his own dunghill. Here Marx presides over his court of sycophants, reformists, servile fawners and opportunists, whom he despises. Allegorical, and fitting.

Dave Fryett is an anarchist in Seattle and can be reached at: Read other articles by Dave, or visit Dave's website.