The Antiauthoritarians of the First International

The International Workingmen’s Association, popularly known as the First International, first met in September of 1864 at St. Martin’s Hall in London. It began as a relatively modest gathering of workers, trade unionists, and socialists of various kinds and political inclinations a half-century before the fated October Revolution, before the twentieth century cemented a particular vision and version of socialist practice. This historical meeting took place mere months before the death of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first self-described anarchist, and before Karl Marx shot to international notoriety as the global labor movement’s leader among leaders and theorist among theorists. The legacy of the First International remains with us today in two very different strains of socialism, a libertarian one and an authoritarian one.

Within the broader socialist movement—the movement to end monopoly and exploitation, ushering in a truly free and fair economic system—there has always been a tension between the top-down and the bottom-up, between the libertarian and authoritarian, between the centralizing and decentralizing forces. The ends of equality and workers’ liberation identified, there remained the question of the means to be adopted and the strategies to be employed. These questions were at the center of the famously “prolonged and bitter duel”[1] between Marx and Bakunin, which culminated in the expulsion of the latter in absentia from the First International at the Hague in 1872. But before this bitter and often personal dispute with Bakunin, Marx had made Proudhon, the father of anarchism, the target of his ire, perhaps because Proudhon articulated so many of his major strikes against the capitalist system earlier and more clearly than he. Proudhon presents an early approach to history through the lens of economics. Indeed, he remarks that political economy is the Creator’s last word. But he departs sharply from the economic determinism of, for example, Josiah Warren, the former acolyte of Robert Owen, often regarded as his American counterpart and the first American anarchist. While his thinking was a central ideological feature of the First International and a major influence on fellow anarchist Bakunin, Proudhon famously resisted ideological systems and passed away in his mid-50s before some of the International’s most famous and heated disputes.

As the great George Woodcock notes in his biography of Proudhon, “For the first four years of its life, the International was dominated by the French mutualists, who consistently defeated Marx and his policy of collectivism and political action.” Marx regarded Proudhon and his ideas as having “done enormous harm,” corrupting “the young people, the students, and then the workers.” The First International was the site of a battle, yet ongoing, between competing visions of socialism. One, the libertarian, saw the path to freedom, equality, and justice in cooperative banks and workshops, in which free people would associate in decentralist federations. Marx despised Proudhon for positing a gradual, peaceful, rapprochement between the proletariat and the growing bourgeoisie. The other, the authoritarian, insisted on a violent break with the existing order, ushering in a dictatorship of the proletariat, with an attendant eradication of the bourgeois class. Tragically, the First International perhaps represents the high water mark of the former vision, which was subsequently eclipsed by the rising tide of organized and avowedly statist communism. At the risk of oversimplifying the struggle between these socialisms, Marx and his acolytes followed the Jacobins in their dream of a “unitary state,” whereas the Proudhonians advanced the idea of a “loose union of free communes and regions.” As Woodcock explains, “[T]he French Internationalists sought to create credit unions, popular banks, cooperatives and industrial associations. They looked to a decentralist, federal society in which the State would vanish and freedom of credit would allow every man the means of producing independently or cooperatively.” They didn’t identify with or want the approval of political urban elites; they despised them and actively resisted their control over economic production and political life. This dichotomy persists today in the presence of anarchism and statism within the broader socialist movement.

Proudhon’s influence on the First International is remarkably under-appreciated in both left-wing circles and among professional historians. Much of the International, particularly the French section, accepted Proudhon’s ideas in toto and rejected Marx’s political program just as completely. Bakunin, too, exercised a tremendous influence on the International and adopted many if not most of Proudhon’s core ideas, though he maintained a predilection for conspiracy, intrigue, and violence that were foreign to Proudhon’s ideas. Observing from the other side of the Atlantic, the American anarchists tended to identify with Proudhon and Bakunin, lamenting the influence of Marx’s politics, his more authoritarian and political tendencies. There was yet no singular way of interpreting socialism, which was expansive enough at the time to embrace a host of means. For Bakunin and the anarchists more generally, social change and the ultimate liberation of the working classes could not be the top-down project of “the dictatorial power of [a] learned minority” acting as a revolutionary vanguard; the change would have to arise from the free and spontaneous actions of the workers themselves, outside of and as a counter to the formal political process. The state was the source of the capitalists’ monopoly power, a thing to be abolished, replaced by society’s administration of its own affairs, not captured by a new revolutionary elite.

Jean-Christophe Angaut, a philosopher and Bakunin scholar, has argued that prevailing interpretations of the conflict between Marx and Bakunin have been “overdetermined by the later history of the relations between communism and anarchism,” leading to an under-appreciation of the respective political practices and strategies they brought to their attempts to steer the direction and control of the First International. In particular, Angaut points to four criticisms and accusations Marx and Engels leveled against Bakunin. The first was their critique of his 1848 “Appeal to the Slavs,” in which they rather unfairly attacked as vague Bakunin’s appeals to “freedom,” “justice,” “equality,” and “liberation.”[2]The second and third points of attack go directly to Angaut’s argument about the importance of the differences between Marx and Bakunin on strategies within the International, as opposed to substantive disagreements about normative principles: Marx believed that Bakunin sought to become a kind of dictator of the International, despite the fact that, as Angaut points out, Bakunin insisted he wanted to reduce the power of the council and had no grand design to gain control over it.[3] Marx and Engels also saw Bakunin as aiming “to substitute the [International Alliance of Socialist Democracy’s] program for that of the International.” Marx’s final criticism did go directly to some of the substantive doctrinal differences between Marx’s communism and Bakunin’s anarchism, condemning the latter’s principled abstention from party politics. Ahead of the ‘72 meeting at the Hague, Marx and Engels mounted a campaign to discredit Bakunin and the anarchist contingent, lamenting what they characterized as “the persistent efforts of certain meddlers to deliberately maintain confusion” between the First International and the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy. The words of Friedrich Engels in a letter to Theodore Cuno perhaps distill the fundamental point of contention between Marx and Bakunin on the question of political participation and the role of the state in the emancipation of the working class:

[T]he mass of the workers will never allow themselves to be persuaded that the public affairs of their country are not also their own affairs; they are by nature political and whoever tries to make out to them that they should leave politics alone will in the end get left in the lurch. To preach that the workers should in all circumstances abstain from politics is to drive them into the arms of the priests or the bourgeois republicans.

In the early ‘70s, the height of Bakunin’s conflict with Marx[4], the International was still able to maintain some of its decentralist and libertarian character, and several prominent radicals started sections of the International in this vein; libertarian such as Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin, Stephen Pearl Andrews, and William B. Greenewere all instrumental in starting chapters of the international in Boston and New York, which were dedicated to both the ideas of socialist equality and radical individual liberty. Proto-anarchist luminaries such as the great libertarians and abolitionists Lysander Spooner and William Batchelder Greene were among the members of Heywood’s generation who counted themselves members of the International, who saw clearly what seems so elusive today, the clear connection between libertarianism and socialism. In the very first issue of his radical journal The Word, Heywood remarked with worry that “Dr. Marx and other leaders of this great and growing fraternity” of workers leaned so “strongly toward compulsory policies.” Heywood argued that the success of the International would depend on its fidelity “to its bottom idea—voluntary association in behalf of our common humanity.” The Word was a leading “organ of the International’s libertarian wing in the United States,” along with Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.[5] Yet the First International was always more singular in its focus than the middle-class radicalism that began to approach questions of sexuality and marriage, eschewing these issues if not explicitly discounting their importance to the working class. Women were largely, though not completely excluded from participation in the First International, particularly in its leadership. As Antje Schrupp observes, this relegation of women to second-tier status within the First International “was not as self-evident as it might seem” given the role that women had played in the earliest incarnations of socialism, the utopian socialist communities of visionaries like Fourier and Saint-Simon. In point of fact, the American radicals’ open expression of early feminist and free love attitudes and opinions became part of the justification for their expulsion from the International by Marx and his allies, who tended to see these issues as distractions from the goal of a revolutionary proletarian movement.

At the time of the First International, the great Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin was still a young man in his early twenties, but when he wrote about it himself, he said something characteristically insightful, genuinely reflecting the relationship between the anarchism he espoused and the broader socialist movement. Kropotkin said that what made the early meetings of the International so special was that “they did not seek to control the socialist movement: they sought rather to find its expression. … They were simply places where workers from various sections of the world could exchange ideas.” Like Proudhon and Bakunin, Kropotkin knew better than to trust “the emancipation of the working classes” to either electoral politics (“the electoral lottery,” in his words) or violent revolution. Kropotkin believed that direct action was the key to their emancipation and he actively resisted the attempts of the social democrats “to turn the International in to a political party.”[6] He damned both “government socialism” and “government capitalism” as “diametrically opposed to the First International’s commitment to worker’s self-organisation” and he interpreted “the rejection of direct action as a vote for capitalism and the state,” as well as imperialism.[7]

If Proudhon died before the major dramas of the International fully played out, then Kropotkin came of age after the split between the political socialists (those who favored the seizure of the state) and the anarchists (those who favored a decentralized, bottom-up resistance to politics itself) had hardened into a recognized divide within the international socialist movement. Kropotkin, “an admirer of American federalism” and the Declaration of Independence, made visits to the United States in 1897 and 1901.[8] Since the first spark of a self-conscious anarchist movement, the European and American schools were in contact and correspondence; they knew each other as friends and allies, despite any differences. It is important to stress the ties between these groups of anarchists because so much has been made of these differences, which have frequently been mapped onto the social versus individualist dichotomy within the movement. Due to the strength and clarity of his libertarian ideas, Kropotkin became a bridge between the United States and Europe, between the individualist anarchists and the social anarchists. Indeed, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman first encountered the ideas of Kropotkin (as well as Bakunin) in the United States.[9]

Though much has been made of their ideological differences, American and European anti-authoritarians found much common ground. In the pages of Liberty, Tucker, the ultimate individualist anarchist, described Bakunin as a “heroic reformer,” whom history was bound to place “in the very front ranks of the world’s great social saviours.” He was, of course, also Bakunin’s first and foremost translator for the American public, expressing his admiration for Bakunin in the very first year of Liberty’s run. Similarly, philosophical differences notwithstanding, Tucker called Kropotkin’s Le Révolté “the most scholarly anarchist journal in existence.”[10] And to Kropotkin, the memory of the Chicago martyrs rivaled even the importance of the Paris Commune. Tucker’s high recognition of Bakunin and Kropotkin, among other anarchists in the (later-named) social anarchist category, confounds the retrospective reading of nineteenth century anarchism that finds a sharp, irreconcilable divide between the individualists and communists/collectivists, between the Americans and Europeans. The on-the-ground facts were significantly more complicated—and interesting, revealing that anarchists have always rejected the false choice between arch-individualism and individual-subordinating collectivism; as a matter of fact, functioning human societies have never looked anything like either of these extremes. Kropotkin, while a committed socialist and opponent of capitalism, never shied from praising free exchange (in its true, principled form), trade, and innovation. In The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin praises at length “solutions based on free agreement in place and stead of law,” juxtaposing those directly, in anarchist fashion, to “the intrinsic force of free agreement that can hold its own against all-powerful Capital favoured by the State.” He embraced the internationalism of classical socialism and saw global interconnectedness as totally consistent with the small-scale and libertarian socialism he espoused. This is one of the many reasons Kropotkin and other classical anarchists like Bakunin, Proudhon, and Tucker remain important today: they stubbornly defy contemporary superficial categories and present the idea of a social and economic system that is both cosmopolitan and rooted in regionality and locality, and both market-liberal/libertarian and fully committed to equality and socialism.

As historian Robert Graham has pointed out, Marx’s expulsion of the anarchists had the unintended consequence of “solidify[ing] support for a reconstituted International that embraced federalist principles and rejected centralized power.” A group of these anti-authoritarians, decentralists, and federalists resolved to continue their efforts through a new congress, meeting for the first time at Saint-Imier, Switzerland in September of 1872. The meeting was history’s first international congress of anarchists, arising out of the clear libertarian-authoritarian divide within the First International. The workers who met at Saint-Imier could not have been more different from the rest of the International in their libertarianism and decentralism, that is, the means they chose to accomplish the common goals of socialism; they saw themselves not as forming a new body, but “merely [as] reorganizing or reconstituting the International on its original federalist basis.”[11] The federalists who convened at Saint-Imier saw political power itself as the primary problem and obstacle, roundly rejecting the idea of worker liberation through the seizure of state power; in this much, they echoed “the complaints that the enragés had made against the Jacobins.” As Woodcock noted, the anti-authoritarian international soon “slipped quietly into inactivity.” Though never officially disbanded, it did not hold a conference after 1877. Last summer, over a century and a half later, anarchists from around the world gathered again in Saint-Imier to celebrate the movement, to look back on its history, and to compare strategies for building the new cooperative and libertarian society. The Saint-Imier Congress is among the most important episodes in the history of the libertarian left, “a watershed moment in the history of socialism and anarchism.” The meeting heralded a new world, one today’s anarchists are building still, a world of mutual respect and reciprocity, of participation and democracy, of freedom and fulfillment. The people who met at Saint-Imier did not agree with one another on everything, but they agreed that the power of the state was fundamentally incompatible with a truly human future and that the dominative power of capital depended on the state. The anti-authoritarian socialists who met at Saint-Imier argued forcefully that if individualism and socialism could not be reconciled and translated into a robust plan of extra-political action for social change, then neither was worthwhile.

These anarchist voices are begging us to acknowledge a simple fact: the relevant distinction, the important one, is not that false choice, but a choice between authority and liberty and thus between a centralized, authoritarian society and one that protects individuals and their ability to exercise their creative capacity, the ability to create to create a free, open society. The anti-authoritarian international is a reminder of the past and a harbinger of the future; it reminds us that people throughout time have always instinctively desired and fought for freedom and equality, and it points the way to a society in the future where these ideals are realized. The spirit of socialism, that all people are equal as members of a single family across cultures and nations, is present in the spirit of libertarianism, the idea that all human beings deserve to be free. There is a sense in which anarchists, whether in the final quarter of the 19th century, at the Saint-Imier Congress, or today, have always asked for the bare minimum: they’ve asked only for a society in which all people would meet each other as equals, and any agreements, be they between two people or between one person and her government, would be freely entered into, without violence or background conditions created by violence. This is where socialism and libertarianism meet, where the ideals of equality and freedom are so clearly inextricable. We deserve both, and we will have both.


[1] Alvin W. Gouldner, “Marx’s Last Battle: Bakunin and the First International.” Theory and Society 11, no. 6 (1982).

[2] Mark Leier, “Bakunin: The Creative Passion-A Biography,” (Seven Stories Press 2011).

[3] It probably goes without saying that Marx was projecting here; he sought a very complete control over the International and of course consolidated an inordinate amount of power of the international socialist movement in the decades to come.

[4] Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits, page 26.

[5] Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits, page 26.

[6] Ruth Kinna, Kropotkin: Reviewing the Classical Anarchist Tradition (Edinburgh University Press 2016), page 175.

[7] Ruth Kinna, Kropotkin: Reviewing the Classical Anarchist Tradition (Edinburgh University Press 2016), page 176.

[8] Paul Avrich,  “Kropotkin in America.” International Review of Social History 25, no. 1 (1980).

[9] Steve J. Shone, American Anarchism (Haymarket Books 2014), page 165.

[10] Paul Avrich,  “Kropotkin in America.” International Review of Social History 25, no. 1 (1980).

[11] Zoe Baker, Means and Ends: The Revolutionary Practice of Anarchism in Europe and the United States (AK Press 2023).

David S. D’Amato is an attorney, businessman, and independent researcher. He is a Policy Advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation and a regular opinion contributor to The Hill. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, Investor’s Business Daily, RealClearPolitics, The Washington Examiner, and many other publications, both popular and scholarly. His work has been cited by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, among others.