Mutualists in the First International

Well, the London Anarchist bookfair was good. The new Black Flag (no. 230) sold well – we had the best stall takings for ages. So hopefully that will have an impact on our printing debts (looks like we may not only pay off this run but also make a small dent in outstanding monies owned!).

If anyone in the UK is interested in subscribing to Black Flag, it is £10 for 4 issues – but remember we come out bi-annually just now. Our address is:

Black Flag

BM Hurricane
United Kingdom

It can also be bought via AK Press UK and will shortly be in Freedom and Housmans Bookshops in London.

I know I’m biased, but I still think it’s the best anarcho-magazine in the English-speaking world. At the very least, the best laid-out (which is not my responsibility). We are always looking for people to get involved – writing and distribution are always in need of people to chip in… issue 231 will not write itself nor will our printing debts disappear by themselves! Our email is:

Managed to get a few interesting bits and pieces, not least a copy of the old pamphlet “The Poverty of Statism” (pdf) which has Fabbri’s classic critique of Marxism (the booklet also has two good Rocker articles). Do yourself a favour, read it.

Unfortunately, I then came down with a nasty bug and so spent most of the next week recovering! So not much done, which is annoying. I did manage to go through the introduction to the Proudhon Reader and chop it down considerably (although I’ve not had any chance of actually making the cuts yet!). I’ve also got most of the outstanding wish-list translations either done or being worked on (and got an interesting 1849 letter to leading utopian socialist Pierre Leroux added to the contents!). I’m going to have to go through what I have in order to bring it down to the word-limit AK Press have agreed… that could be hard as there is lots of good material translated now!

Hopefully the introduction will do the anthology justice. Suffice to say, it aims to place Proudhon’s ideas into the evolution of anarchism as a socio-economic theory and movement, showing the obvious links from him to the likes of Bakunin and Kropotkin. In fact, the new material translated from the 1848 revolution really brings this out, with Bakunin essentially paraphrasing Proudhon’s works on many key issues.

As did Marx. As I note in the introduction, he eclipsed Proudhon thanks to two things inspired by the French anarchist. The IWMA and the Paris Commune. I’ve noted before Marx’s debt to Proudhon in terms of analyzing exploitation and with the Paris Commune Marx essentially appropriated key themes on social organization in The Civil War in France. All that stuff which Marx praises the Communards for (mandates, recalled, fusion of legislative and executive powers, federalism, etc.)? All expounded by Proudhon in 1848 and afterward… Not that the typical Marxist knows this, having read the likes of that numpty Hal Draper and Lenin’s State and Revolution

One thing I’ve discovered is that a lot of research needs to be done on this period, particularly the 1848 revolution in France. Hopefully the material I’ve got translated for the anthology will provoke interest in this subject – particularly as it really does explain a lot about the evolution of anarchism. As do the debates in the IWMA and the Commune.

As I was saying to Andrew Flood at the bookfair, I seem to be turning into an anarcho-historian! Still, looks like I’ll be attending a lot of union meetings soon as the management are seeking to impose cuts on us… yet more stuff to do!

Anyways, here is the chapter on Proudhon’s legacy in the First International. It should help indicate that the main debates within the organisation were between people inspired by Proudhon and reflected his ideas and, indeed, terminology. The notion that it was “Marxists” against “Proudhonists” as regards “collectivisation” is misleading, as is the notion that the debate involved collective ownership as such. Rather, it was about collective ownership of land. All sides agreed on the need for public ownership of capital – and all the libertarians agreed on the necessity of abolishing wage labour! In this, they followed Proudhon – and given that Proudhon proclaimed the land common for all, it is fair to say that the so-called collectivists were hardly alien to his legacy on this issue!

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

International Workingmen’s Association

While the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA) is usually, these days, most associated with Marx. In fact, it was created by British trade unionists and “French mutualist workingmen, who in turn were direct followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon” (“Contrary to stubborn legend, Karl Marx was not one of its actual founders”).[1] The negotiations that lead to its founding in 1864 began in 1862 when the Proudhonists (including Henri-Louis Tolain[2] and Eugene Varlin[3]) visited the London International Exhibition.[4] Marx simply, and fortuitously, turned up to the founding meeting in 1864 after being invited by some German socialist exiles.

Like Proudhon, his followers in the IWMA thought workers “should be striving for the abolition of salaried labour and capitalist enterprise.” This was by means of co-operatives and their “perspective was that of artisan labour . . . The manager/employer (patron) was a superfluous element in the production process who was able to deny the worker just compensation for his labour merely by possessing the capital that paid for the workshop, tools, and materials.”[5] As G.D.H. Cole puts it, the French Internationalists, including Varlin, were “strongly hostile to centralisation. They were federalists, intent on building up working-class organisations on a local basis and them federating the local federations. The free France they looked forward was to be a country made up of locally autonomous communes, freely federated for common purposes which required action over larger areas . . . In this sense they were Anarchists.” [6] Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, that in 1866 the International officially adopted the Red Flag as its symbol, so confirming Proudhon that “the red flag represents the final revolution . . . The red flag is the federal standard of humanity!”[7]

Given their role in setting up the organisation, the Proudhonists dominated the agenda in the first years of the International. According to the standard, usually Marxist or Marxist-influenced, accounts of the International this initial domination by the Proudhonists was eclipsed by the rise of a collectivist current (usually identified with Marxism). This is not entirely true. Yes, the Basel Congress of 1869 saw the apparent success of a collectivist motion which was opposed by Tolain and some of his fellow French Internationalists, but this was fundamentally a debate between followers of Proudhon on the specific issue of agricultural collectivisation rather than a rejection of “Proudhonism” as such. As one historian notes:

“The endorsement of collectivism by the International at the Basel Congress might appear to be a rejection of the French position on co-operatives. Actually, it was not, for collectivism as it was defined by its proponents meant simply the end of private ownership of agricultural land. Lumped together with this was usually the demand for common ownership of mines and railways.”[8]

Thus it was “not a debate over co-operative production in favour of some other model” but rather its extension to agriculture. After all, at the Geneva Congress of 1866 the Proudhonists “persuaded the Congress to agree by unanimous vote that there was a higher goal -- the suppression of ‘salaried status’ – which . . . could be done only through co-operatives.” At the Lausanne Congress of 1867, the Proudhonists around Tolain “acknowledged the necessity of public ownership of canals, roads, and mines” and there was “unanimous accord” on public ownership of “the means of transportation and exchange of goods -- that is, roads, canals, and railways.” As seen, this was Proudhon’s position as well. The proponents of collectivisation at the Lausanne Congress wanted to “extend Tolain’s ideas to all property.” [9]

While the resolution on collectivisation “represents the final decisive defeat of the strict Proudhonist element which, centred in Paris, had dominated in France and had drawn the parameters of the debates at the International’s congresses in the beginning,”[10] this did not automatically mean the end of Proudhonian influences in the International. After all, the main leader of the “collectivist” position was César De Paepe was a self-proclaimed Mutualist and follower of Proudhon. As such, the debate was fundamentally one between followers of Proudhon, not between Proudhonists and Marxists, and the resolution was not inconsistent with Proudhon’s ideas.

This can be seen from the fact that resolution itself was remarkably Proudhonian in nature, with the resolution on collective property urging the collectivisation of roads, canals, railways, mines, quarries, collieries and forests, to be “ceded to ‘workers’ companies’ which would guarantee the ‘mutual rights’ of workers and would sell their goods or services at cost.” The land would “be turned over to ‘agricultural companies’ (i.e., agricultural workers) with the same guarantees as those required of the ‘workers’ companies’” [11] De Paepe himself clarified the issue: “Collective property would belong to society as a whole, but would be conceded to associations of workers. The State would be no more than a federation of various groups of workers.”[12]

Given that Proudhon had advocated such workers’ companies to run publically owned industries as well as arguing the land was common property and transferred to communes, the resolution was not the rejection of Proudhon’s ideas that many assume. As Daniel Guérin suggested, “in the congresses of the First International the libertarian idea of self-management prevailed over the statist concept.”[13] Moreover, at Basel Congress of 1869 “Bakunin emerged as the main champion of collectivism.”[14] As Kropotkin suggested:

“As to his economical conceptions, Bakunin described himself, in common with his Federalist comrades of the International (César De Paepe, James Guillaume, Schwitzguébel), a ‘collectivist anarchist’ . . . to express a state of things in which all necessaries for production are owned in common by the labour groups and the free communes, while the ways of retribution of labour, communist or otherwise, would be settled by each group for itself.”[15]

So while “there was no division between the ‘Bakuninist’ and Marx’s supporters over the necessity of collectivisation,” [16] it should be stressed that the dispute centred wholly around the collectivisation of agricultural property (after all, at the Brussels Congress De Paepe had “reminded Tolain and other opponents of collective property that they were in favour of collectivising mines, railroads, and canals”[17]). That the IWMA resolved that land was to be managed by “societies of agricultural workers”[18] can be considered a logical fusion of Proudhon’s arguments on land ownership and workers’ associations.

As such, the rise of the collectivists in the IWMA does not represent a defeat for Proudhon’s ideas.[19] Rather, it reflected a development of those ideas produced by debates between socialists heavily influenced by the Frenchman’s ideas. This is obscured by the fact that Proudhon’s ideas on the necessity of workers’ associations are not well know. So, once this is understood, it is easy to see that it was in the IWMA that Proudhon’s mutualist ideas evolved into collectivist and then communist anarchism (most famously associated with Bakunin and Kropotkin, respectively).

The main areas of change centred on means (reform verses revolution) and so the need for strikes, unions and other forms of collective working class direct action and organisation rather than the goal of a federated, associated, self-managed socialist society. As G.D.H. Cole perceptively writes, Varlin “had at bottom a great deal more in common with Proudhon than with Marx” and had a “Syndicalist outlook.”[20] Like Bakunin, Varlin argued that unions have “the enormous advantage of making people accustomed to group life and thus preparing them for a more extended social organisation. They accustom people not only to get along with one another and to understand one another, but also to organise themselves, to discuss, and to reason from a collective perspective.” Again, like Bakunin, Varlin argued that unions also “form the natural elements of the social edifice of the future; it is they who can be easily transformed into producers associations; it is they who can make the social ingredients and the organisation of production work.”[21]

Thus, by 1868 “a transition from mutualism to ‘antistatist’ or ‘antiauthoritarian collectivism’ had began.”[22] Such developments are to be expected. Just as Proudhon developed and changed his ideas in the face of changing circumstances and working class self-activity, so working class people influenced by his ideas developed and changed what they took from Proudhon in the face of their own circumstances. However, the core ideas of anti-statism and anti-capitalism, remained and so these changes must be viewed as a development of Proudhon’s ideas rather than something completely new or alien to them. Thus the revolutionary anarchism of Bakunin and Kropotkin which grew within the IWMA has distinct similarities to that of Proudhon’s reformist kind, even if it disagrees on certain issues.

Needless to say, the IWMA did not become “Marxist” until the gerrymandered Hague Congress of 1872 approved the expulsion of Bakunin and imposed the necessity of “political action” (i.e., standing for elections to capture political power) upon the organisation. It promptly collapsed, although the libertarian sections (such as Belgium, Spain and Italy) successfully organised their own IWMA congresses until 1877.

[1] Woodcock, Anarchism and Anarchists, p. 75

[2] “the philosophical structure of Tolain’s address derived from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, . . . The preponderance of organisers and members of the International in France were Proudhonist.” (Julian P. W. Archer, The First International in France, 1864-1872), p. 23

[3] Eugen Varlin “an autodidact bookbinder, labour organiser and leading Proudhonist member of the International.” (Robert Tomes, The Paris Commune 1871, p. 81)

[4] George Woodcock, Anarchism, pp. 198-9

[5] Archer, p. 45

[6] A History Of Socialist Thought, Vol. 2, p. 140

[7] quoted by Hayward, After the French Revolution, p. 246. As Hayward notes, Proudhon had “predicted in March 1848 the internationalism of the Red Flag.” The Red Flag was adopted as a Chartist symbol on 31st of December, 1849 and on 10th November 1850 European Socialists in exile in London adopted it in place of their national flags, “a prelude to it becoming the emblem of the First International in 1866.”

[8] Archer, p. xxi

[9] Archer, p. xxi, p. 69, p. 101. As an example of the ambiguity of words used at the time, public ownership was to be achieved by means of the state, although the “state” was defined as a “collectivity of individuals” with “no interests apart from society.” (quoted by Archer, p. 101)

[10] Archer, p. 171

[11] Archer, p. 128

[12] quoted by Guerin, Anarchism, p. 47

[13] Anarchism, p. 47

[14] Archer, p. 170

[15] Anarchism and Anarchist Communism (Freedom Press, 1987), pp. 16-7

[16] Archer, p. 170

[17] Archer, p. 127

[18] quoted by Archer, p. xxi

[19] This shows how wrong Bernard H. Moss was to assert the standard Marxist version that the French Internationalists proposed “an associationist strategy for socialism that was the very opposite of Proudhonism” and that “collectivist implications of this movement were drawn by French labour delegates” were somehow at odds with Proudhon’s ideas. That “the International repeatedly urged trade societies to set up associations as means of socialist transformation” was something close to the heart of Proudhon, as was the fact that the French delegates “gave their imprimatur to the collectivisation of industry within a federation of trades and workers’ communes.” (Op. Cit., p. 76)

[20] A History Of Socialist Thought, Vol. 2, p. 168

[21] quoted by Archer, p. 196

[22] David Berry, p. 17


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