A Common Banner: Marxists and Anarchists in the First International

by Michael Löwy


Marxists and Anarchists (these terms were not usual at that time) were part of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) – the First International – since its origin in 1864. The disagreements between partisans of Marx and of Bakunin led to a bitter split in 1872. Soon afterwards, the “Marxist” IWA de facto dissolved itself, while the Bakuninists created, in a conference at Saint-Imier, Switzerland (1872), their own IWA, which, in precarious ways, still exists today. For Marx, the reasons for the split are Bakunin’s Pan-Slavist tendencies and his anti-democratic, conspiratorial fractionalism. According to Bakunin, the division resulted from Marx’s Pan-German orientation, as well as his authoritarian and intolerant behavior. In spite of the obvious exaggerations, both accusations contain some truth, and the wrongs can hardly be placed only on one side. Marxist and Anarchist historians reproduced these arguments, each one blaming the other for the crisis of the IWA. Academic scholars, even if they don’t take sides, also emphasize the conflict of ideas and practices between the two.1

What is lost in this approach, which largely predominates in the literature on the First International, is the simple and important fact that this was an open and pluralistic Association, where, in spite of disagreements and conflicts, partisans of Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin, Blanqui, and others, were able to work together for several years, eventually adopting common resolutions, and fighting side by side in the greatest revolutionary event of the 19th century, the Paris Commune. Let us briefly sketch some of the main moments of this forgotten history of the “coming together” of Marxists and Anarchists in the IWA.


Soon after the founding of the First International, its Central Council assigned Karl Marx to write the Provisional Rules of the Association. The document begins with the famous call – “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” – which has remained a common ground for Marxists and Anarchists.

From the beginning, Anarchists and Libertaires – I use the French term, which refers to a broad anti-authoritarian revolutionary socialist tendency, because its English equivalent, libertarians, has been hijacked by an ultra-liberal capitalist reactionary ideology – were present, next to other socialists, in the First International. This applies first of all to the followers of Proudhon (1809-1865), whose relations with the Marxian socialists were not necessarily conflictive. Between Marx’s friends and the representatives of the Left Proudhonian current, such as the Belgian César de Paepe and the French Eugène Varlin, there was considerable agreement. Both opposed the right-wing (petty-bourgeois) Proudhonians, partisans of so-called “mutualism,” an economic project based on “equal exchange” among small proprietors. One of the main proponents of mutualism and private property was the French delegate Henri Tolain, who would later be expelled from the First International for treason because of his support for the bourgeois Versailles government against the Paris Commune.

At the Brussels Congress of the IWA in 1868, the alliance between the two leftist tendencies resulted in the adoption, against the “mutualists,” of a collectivist program, presented by the Belgian libertaire socialist César de Paepe. This resolution proposed collective ownership of the means of production – land, mines, forests, machines, means of transportation.2 The resolution on the forests appears, in retrospect, one of the most interesting, in view of its socialist and ecological implications:

Considering that abandoning the forests to private owners leads to their destruction;
That this destruction in certain parts of the territory will harm the conservation of water sources, and therefore, the good quality of the land, as well as public health and the life of the citizens;
The Congress decides that the forests should become the property of the social collectivity.3

Both tendencies also supported a resolution stating that workers should react to war by a general strike. Karl Marx (who wasn’t present in Brussels) didn’t like this resolution, which he appears to have considered unrealistic, although it was proposed by one of his followers – soon to become his son-in-law by marrying Jenny Marx – Charles Longuet.

It was at that moment, in 1868, that Bakunin joined the First International. He considered himself, on several issues, sympathetic to Marx’s ideas. He met Marx during a visit to London in 1864, and in 1867 Marx sent him a copy of Das Kapital. Bakunin’s reaction was enthusiastic; he celebrated “M. Karl Marx, the illustrious leader of German Communism,” and “his magnificent work Das Kapital.” He believed the book should be translated into French,

because, as far as I know, no other book contains such a profound, luminous, scientific analysis, such a decisive one, and, if I may say so, is so pitiless in unmasking the formation of bourgeois capital and the systematic and cruel exploitation that it continues to impose on proletarian labor. The only shortcoming of the book … is that it is written, in part only, in a too metaphysical and abstract style … which makes its reading difficult and almost impossible for most workers. However, it is the workers that should read it. The bourgeois will never do it, or, if they read it, wouldn’t understand it, and if they understand it, will never mention it; this book being nothing else but their death sentence, scientifically motivated and irrevocably uttered, not as individuals but as a class.4

It is not by chance that as late as 1879, several years after the split, a close follower of Bakunin, the Italian anarchist Carlo Cafiero, produced a popular version of Capital, which was considered very useful by Marx.

Of course, there were from the beginning strong disagreements between Marx and Bakunin. In an October 28, 1869 letter to Herzen, Bakunin mentioned his principled opposition to what he called Marx’s “state-communism.” But in the same letter he added, about Marx: “we should not underestimate, and I certainly don’t, the immense services that he rendered to the cause of socialism, which he has served with intelligence, energy and sincerity for the last 25 years, in which endeavor he has undoubtedly surpassed us all.”5

In 1869, at the Basel Conference of the IWA, the two collectivist tendencies approved a common resolution proposing the socialization of land. However, the Anarchists obtained a symbolic victory by winning significant support – but not the required majority – for their resolution in favor of the abolition of inheritance: 32 votes among 68 delegates (23 were against, 13 abstained). Marx and his friends on the General Council argued that inheritance was only a consequence of the economic system, based on private property of the means of production, and was not the cause of exploitation. Their proposal – to tax, rather than suppress inheritance – got only 19 votes (37 against, 6 abstentions). Bakunin viewed the latter vote as a “complete victory” for his ideas.


With the Paris Commune of 1871, Anarchists and Marxists cooperated in the first great attempt at proletarian power in modern history. Already in 1870, Leo Frankel, a Hungarian worker activist living in France, a close friend of Marx, and Eugene Varlin, the dissident Proudhonian, worked together for the reorganization of the French section of the IWA. After March 18, 1871, the two cooperated closely in the leadership of the Paris Commune: Frankel as Delegate on Labor, Varlin as Delegate on War. Both took part, in May 1871, in the fight against the Versailles army. Varlin was shot after the defeat of the Commune, while Frankel was able to emigrate to London.

In spite of its short-lived character – only a few months – the Commune was the first historical example of workers’ revolutionary power, democratically organized – delegates elected by universal suffrage – and suppressing the bureaucratic apparatus of the bourgeois State. It was also a truly pluralist experience, associating in the same struggle “Marxists” (a word which didn’t yet exist), left Proudhonians, Jacobins, Blanquists and Social Republicans.

Of course, Marx’s and Bakunin’s respective analyses of this revolutionary event were entirely opposed. One could summarize Marx’s interpretation by the following quote:

The situation of the small number of convinced socialists in the Commune was excessively difficult. They had to oppose a revolutionary government and army to the Versailles government and army.

Against this understanding of the civil war in France as being between two governments and their respective armies, Bakunin developed a strong anti-statist viewpoint:

The Paris commune was a revolution against the State itself, this supernatural monster produced by society.

Well informed readers have already corrected this presentation: the first statement was in fact written by Bakunin, in his essay “The Paris Commune and the notion of the State.”6 And the second one was written by Marx, in his first draft of The Civil War in France 1871.7 We inverted the statements on purpose, to show that the – undeniable – divergences between Marx and Bakunin, Marxists and Anarchists, are not as simple and obvious as one usually believes.

Interestingly, Marx rejoiced in the fact that during the events of the Commune the Proudhonians forgot their mentor’s hostility to revolutionary political action, while certain Anarchists were pleased that Marx’s writings on the Commune forgot centralism and adopted federalism. It is true that The Civil War in France 1871, as well as the statement on the Commune that Marx wrote on behalf of the First International and the several drafts and materials preparing this document, bear witness to Marx’s ferocious anti-statism. Defining the Commune as the political form, finally found, for the social emancipation of the workers, he insisted on the break with the State, this artificial body, this boa constrictor as he called it, this suffocating nightmare, this parasitical overgrowth.8

In fact, this was not the first time that Marx voiced strongly anti-statist views. He did so in his manuscript Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), where he opposes “true democracy” to the state, and in several political writings, for instance in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), where he writes that “the state enmeshes, controls, regulates, superintends, and tutors civil society from its most comprehensive manifestations of life down to its most insignificant stirrings, from its most general modes of being to the private existence of individuals.” In modern bourgeois society “this parasitic body acquires a ubiquity, an omniscience, a capacity for accelerated mobility, and an elasticity which finds a counterpart only in the helpless dependence, the loose shapelessness of the actual social body (Gesellschaftskörper).”9 The essay on the Commune is the sharpest expression of this revolutionary rejection of the state.

However, after the Commune, the conflict between the two revolutionary tendencies of international socialism intensified, leading, at the Hague Congress of the IWA (1872), to the exclusion of Bakunin and Guillaume (his Swiss follower), and the transfer of the IWA headquarters to New York – in fact, its dissolution. Following the split, the Anarchists, as mentioned above, founded their own International Workers Association.

In spite of the split, Marx and Engels did not ignore Bakunin’s writings, and in some cases, had to agree with his anti-Statist arguments. One striking example is the Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). In his book Statism and Anarchy (1873), Bakunin sharply criticized the concept of “People’s State,” used by German Social-Democrats, which he attributed (rightly) to Ferdinand Lassalle and (wrongly) to Marx. When the followers of Marx and Lassalle united in 1875 in the city of Gotha to found the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), their common Program raised the proposition of a People’s State (Volksstaat) for Germany. In his Critique of the Gotha Program – written as an internal document, and only published after his death – Marx openly rejects the concept of People’s State. Moreover, in the letter to his friend Wilhelm Bracke – one of the leaders of the Party – which he sent together with the Critique, he explained that one of his reasons for writing this document is that “Bakunin … makes me responsible not only for all the programs of the Party, but even for all the steps taken by [Wilhelm] Liebknecht since the days of his cooperation with the People’s Party (Volkspartei).”10 Engels, in a March 1875 letter to August Bebel, is even more explicit : “The Anarchists threw the Volksstaat in our faces to the point of saturation, even though Marx’s piece against Proudhon as well as the Communist Manifesto had already openly stated that with the establishment of socialist society the State dissolves itself and disappears.”11

One can therefore conclude that the argument against Lassallean statism in the Critique of the Gotha Program was, to a certain extent, motivated by Bakunin’s polemics against the German Social-Democrats. In the same letter to Bebel, Engels goes even further in the direction of Anarchism: “One should drop all this idle talk on the State, particularly after the Paris Commune, which was no longer a State in the proper meaning of the word.… I propose therefore to replace everywhere [in the Program] State by Gemeinwesen, a good old German word, which may well correspond to the French ‘Commune.’”12


Instead of trying to book-keep the mistakes and blunders of each side in the conflict – there is no lack of mutual accusations – I have tried to emphasize the positive aspect of the First International: a diverse, multiple, democratic internationalist movement, where participants with distinct political approaches were able not only to coexist, but to cooperate in thought and action over a period of several years, playing a vanguard role in the first great modern proletarian revolution. It was an International in which Marxists and Libertaires, either as individuals or as political organizations (such as the Marxist German Social-Democratic Workers’ Party) could – in spite of the conflicts – work together and engage in common actions.

The later Internationals – the Second, the Third and the Fourth – did not have much space for the Anarchists. However, at several important moments in the history of the 20th century, Anarchists and Socialists or Communists were able to join forces. 1) In the first years of the October Revolution (1917-21), many Anarchists, such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, gave (critical) support to the Bolshevik leaders. 2) During the Spanish Revolution, the Anarchists of the CNT-FAI (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo – Federación Anarquista Ibérica) and the Trotsky-sympathizers of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) fought side by side against fascism, and opposed the non-revolutionary orientation of Stalinists and right-wing Social-Democrats. 3) In May ‘68, one of the first revolutionary initiatives was the foundation of the March 22 Movement, under the leadership of the Anarchist Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Trotskyist Daniel Bensaïd. There were also several significant intellectual attempts to bring together the two revolutionary traditions, among writers such as William Morris or Victor Serge, poets such as André Breton (the founder of the Surrealist movement), philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, and historians such as Daniel Guérin.

The experience of the First International cannot repeat itself, of course, but it is highly relevant to us, at the beginning of the 21st century, when again Marxists and Anarchists – or Autonomists, Libertaires, etc. – join forces and act together, as individuals, as networks, or as political organizations (whose existence is not an obstacle to cooperation), in support of the Zapatistas of Chiapas, in the Global Justice movement, in radical ecological struggles, in the mass mobilizations of the Indignados (Spain, Greece), or in Occupy Wall Street.


1. A recent example is Robert Graham, “Marxism and Anarchism on Communism: The Debate between the Two Bastions of the Left,” in Shannon Brincat (ed.) Communism in the 21st Century. Vol 2 Whither Communism? Oxford, Praeger, 2014.

2. See Gaetano Manfredonia, L’anarchisme en Europe, Paris, PUF, Que sais-je? 2001, 36.

3. Amaro del Rosal, Los congresos obreros internacionales en el siglo XIX, Mexico, Grijalbo, 1958, 159.

4. Quoted in G.P. Maximoff (ed.), The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, London, The Free Press of Glencoe, 1953, 187. Also Bakounine, Œuvres, Paris, Champ libre, VIII, 357.

5. Quoted in «Association Internationale des Travailleurs», Wikipedia.

6. M.Bakounine, De la Guerre à la Commune, textes ed. Fernand Rudé, Paris, Anthropos, 1972, 412.

7. Marx, Engels, Lénine, Sur la Commune de Paris, Moscow, Ed. du Progrès, 1971, 45.

8. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Inventer l’inconnu. Textes et correspondances autour de la Commune, introduced by Daniel Bensaïd, in “Politiques de Marx” series, Paris, Editions de La Fabrique, 2008.

9. On the Manuscript of 1843 see Miguel Abensour, La Démocratie contre l’Etat. Marx et le moment machiavélien, Paris, Le Felin, 2004, 137-42, and K.Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1937, 30 (corrected after the German original, in Marx and Engels, Ausgewählte Schriften, Zürich, Ringverlag, 1934, 369).

10. Document annexed in Marx and Engels, Critique des Programme de Gotha et d’Erfurt, Paris, Editions Sociales, 1950, 46. The Party mentioned is the Workers’ Social-Democratic Party (SDAP) founded by Liebknecht and Bebel in 1869 in the city of Eisenach (the precursor to the SPD). The Volkspartei was a liberal bourgeois Party, in which Liebknecht participated before the foundation of the SDAP.

11. Ibid., 99.

12. Ibid.

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