Report from the St Imier Conference

By Hanna Waldman  

Hosted by Solidaridad Obrera, a group with friends’ status with the IWA, based in Chile, September 17.

This report was submitted to Workers’ Solidarity Alliance’s September 29 International Committee meeting. The Link to the Youtube recording is at the end. 

Conversatorio Internacional: “150 años del Congreso Anarquista de Saint Imier”

Facilitating is Nanda, from Revista Libertaria. She introduces the conference by explaining that there are representatives from several different organizations, in different parts of the world, who have come together to remember a very important moment in history—the Congress of Saint Imier, on its 150th anniversary. She says that they have come together to discuss the historical background of the Congress, and how this can be brought to the present.

There are four presentations ahead, and the first is that of Erick Benítez, a comrade representing the Anarchist Federation of Mexico. He is discussing the antecedents of the Saint Imier Congress. Erick begins:

Two days ago, the 150th anniversary of the Congress of Saint Imier was celebrated, where the definitive rupture between Marxists and anarchists occurred in the 19th century. It’s not possible to understand the Congress without understanding the circumstances that led to it. We will have to look back to a few years before the Congress so that we can establish its antecedents.

Perhaps the most important protagonist of the Congress, in ideological terms, is Mikhail Bakunin. By the time of the Congress, he was quite experienced in terms of his

ideology and had faced imprisonment in Siberia for his actions in line with that ideology. At this time, we see the beginning of a confrontation with the Marxists, first because of the question raised by Bakunin regarding the abolition of inheritance, and also because of other conflicts that had existed since the foundation of the First International in 1864. It will not be a secret to anyone that Proudhonians were the founders of the AIT (in 1864, not referring to the current IWA). Despite being present almost from the beginning, Karl Marx was not its founder. Marx did draft some things for dissemination, but the meeting minutes remain from 1864 to 1869, showing what really happened. Concepts such as reciprocity, mutualism, federalism, and other such foundations of Proudhonian extraction from the French anarchists were of great importance.

Marx, at that time a member of the General Council of London, began a low-intensity struggle against Bakunin and the anarchists. In Marx’s correspondence, he complains that, “the fat man Bakunin is behind all this. It is evident, if this damned Russian really plans to put himself at the head of the labor movement, that we must prevent him from doing damage.”

Marx’s fear was founded. Until then, the preponderance of united anarchist activists— the “damage” to which Marx was referring—was the increasingly growing anarchist influence within the International in Spain. Despite making Engels the delegate for Spain, it was the anarchists, led by Giuseppe Fanelli, that made the Spanish labor movement strong and organized. But, as it was outside Marxist influence, they considered it damaging.

Regarding the Franco-Prussian War (in which Germany tried to impose itself on France in a monarchist movement), Marx wrote the following to Engels in July 1870: “the French need a beating. If the Prussians win, the concentration of State Power will be useful for the concentration of the German working class.” We also see a fairly large

trace of German nationalism in Marx, which fully justified Bakunin’s criticism of him for wanting a strong state like the one Bismarck had built.

Then, when the Paris Commune came together in March of the following year—that is, a few months after the Franco-Prussian War—Marx does react to the uprising with joy. But it must be taken into account that, just a few months before, he applauded the monarchist invasion of France even more so. While the first clashes were taking place at the Paris Commune, Marx was dedicating himself to insulting the communards. Once the Commune triumphs and achieves the recognition of everyone, Marx rushed off to write his book The Civil War in France, a truly discordant piece in Marx’s oeuvre, which shows the chameleon nature of his ideologies and sentiments.

At the end of 1871, the hostility of the General Council of London against the anarchists had not ceased. Federalism and the destruction of the State were the main points that the Marxists disagreed with when the Paris Commune was established in 1871–aspects which Marx wrote about critically in his eponymous book.

The dictatorship of Marx, Engels, and company within the General Council of London was already overwhelming. They were resorting to the censorship of correspondence, direct attacks on anarchists, and manipulation of agreements to maintain control of the labor movement.

In his book The Militant Proletariat, Anselmo Lorenzo has left us a description of that sad meeting of Marx’s lackeys after one such conference. Marx and company dedicated themselves to a series of slanders against the anarchists.

During the Congress of the Hague, the venue was chosen by the London General Council for an express purpose—so that Bakunin could not attend due to warrants for his arrest. The Congress of The Hague was Marx and Engels’ declaration of war against the anarchists. Even the International itself made a summary judgment against the anarchist alliance at the congress, forgetting its true purpose.

Indeed, one of the agreements of the congress and its fictitious majority was to send the General Council of London to the United States, to where the headquarters of the International was being relocated. Marx and Engels extended the power of the council by suspending entire federations if they didn’t submit to their dictates.

There was hardly anything constructive in the congress. All coordination of revolutionary forces was forgotten, the reports were barely touched on, there were no positive plenary sessions for the workers’ movement, nor plans for such at all. All this was brushed aside to make way for the execution of the Marxists’ plans, outlined in advance, to suppress the anarchists and expel Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume.

The anarchists, however, would respond to this Marxist attack on the international labor movement. They would declare the Hague Conference illegitimate and meet in Switzerland at the Congress of Saint Imier, which the following speakers will tell you about. In general terms, that was the panorama that existed before the Saint Imier Congress.

Nanda returns to thank Erick, and express appreciation for the large amount of effort it

must have taken to collect all that background information which will give us a solid foundation for the presentations to come.

She then introduces Pedro Peumo, representing Solidaridad Obrera in Chile, who will speak about the resolutions of the Saint-Imier Congress and the birth of anarchism.

Pedro begins by briefly explaining the difference between the Saint Imier Congress and the Saint Imier International (the latter being the workers’ organization founded during the Congress, after the split from the AIT, which lasted until 1877 when it was succeeded by the International Working People’s Association). He also gives his own interpretation of the conflict between the authoritarian and anarchist factions of the International, a dictatorship of the proletariat versus more grassroots communes—the conquest of political power versus the destruction of political power. The antagonism between the two grew to a fever pitch by 1872, the conflict became unsustainable, and the inevitable rupture occurred.

Eight days after the Hague Conference, the Saint Imier Congress took place on Sunday and Monday, the 15th and 16th of September 1872, in the town hall of Saint Imier, in the Francophone Jura Bernois district in the Canton of Bern, western Switzerland. Delegates who attended the Congress include: James Guillaume and Adhémar Schwitzguébel from Switzerland; Carlo Cafiero, Errico Malatesta, Giuseppe Fanelli, Andrea Costa from Italy; Rafael Farga i Pellicer and Tomás González Morago from Spain, and the French refugees Charles Alerini, Gustave Lefrançais, Jean-Louis Pindy, and of course, Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin attended as a delegate of the Italians.

Together with the international congress, a regional congress was held, in which they established many of the agreements that would later be embodied in the general congress of Saint Imier.

Practically all the participants in the Saint Imier Congress were anarchists or revolutionary socialists and federalists, and many of them played important roles in the development of the revolutionary socialist movement after the Congress. However, there were quite a few differences between them, as well.

In general, they adopted a federalist structure for this new International. It was thought of as an authentic and legitimate continuation of the First International, carrying on the work that had been done since 1864. One of the main agreements reached was the decree that there would be full autonomy for each of the sections. This was the first time that established textually within the international, that “no one has the right to deprive the federations and autonomous sections of their right to decide for themselves and follow the line of political conduct that they deem best.” They also said that the aspirations of the proletariat cannot have any other purpose than the establishment of an economic organization and federation which is absolutely free, founded on the basis of equality for all, absolutely independent of any political government.

So what did they do? They turned around the resolutions of the Congress of The Hague, instead stating that it has to be absolutely independent of any political government—that the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat.

The fifteen delegates who attended Saint Imier approved a total of four resolutions in the Congress.

The first resolution was to expressly reject all the agreements of the Hague Congress,

including the expulsion of Bakunin.

The second resolution agreed on this pact of friendship, solidarity, and mutual defense between free federations, which in practice materialized as a confederation of international self-defense against the centralist and authoritarian ambitions of the Marxists.

The third resolution had to do with the nature the political action, as a commitment of solidarity through revolutionary action outside all political power.

The fourth resolution spoke about the Bakuninist theses on economic collectivism.

So in this first Congress of Saint Imier, we find at least two principles of what international anarchism is going to become: the first is that anarchists organize themselves without their participation in politics and parliaments, what is called anti- parliamentarianism. This was the first principle that united and brought together anarchists at the international level. We define ourselves as anarchists by saying that we are going to be anti-parliamentary, we are going to work to destroy all bastions of political power. The second was the principle that had to do with Bakuninist collectivism. These two ideas emerge from this first congress of Saint Imier in 1872. The congress in question did more than save the continuity of the internationalist movement and rescue it from the clutches of the authoritarian politicians that surrounded Marx; it even inaugurated the friendly coexistence of the movement of different tendencies within the same organization to establish the foundations of solid mutual respect for all shades of opinion and tactics.

The resolutions of the Congress received statements of support from the Italian and Spanish federations, Jurassic federation, and some of the English-speaking American federations of the international. Most of the french federations also approved it. In the Netherlands, three of the four Dutch federations approved.

The English federation resented Marx’s attempts to keep it under his control, but “rejected” the decisions of the Saint Imier Congress, The Hague Congress, and the so- called General Council of New York, while also tacitly giving support to the International. In a Congress of the Belgian federation in December of 1872, the delegates also repudiated the Congress of the Hague, supporting instead the “defenders of pure anarchist revolutionary ideas, enemies of all authoritarian centralization and indomitable supporters of autonomy.”

Some will have already realized, however, that on the one hand, there is a resolution that tells us that there is an incontrovertible right of the federations and autonomous sections of the international “to decide for themselves and follow the line of political behavior that they consider best.” In this, one could understand that there is also the possibility that each of the sections participate in politics through political parties. On the other hand, there is another part of the resolutions that tells us emphatically that the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat. This contradiction between one part of the resolutions that tells us that each one of the sections can organize itself however it wants and pursue whichever tactics it wants, but on the other hand there is one that limits that way of carrying out the tactic that is not to participate in politics.

Sections can organize themselves in the way they want, can establish the structures that they want, with total autonomy—but the principle that unites us is that we must destroy political power. It allows absolute freedom and develops federalism for the first time, in an absolutely open, transparent and libertarian way. At the same time, it establishes a

principle that identifies us as anarchists: anti-parliamentarianism.

The congresses that followed later kept saying the same thing, except for in 1877, when Kropotkin came into the picture. Together with Malatesta and Reclus, Kropotkin changed this principle of collectivism that had been there since the first and the idea of libertarian communism began to predominate. Then, as a result of the Congresses of the Saint Imier International, the principles of anti-parliamentary federalism, of the absolute freedom of each of the sections, and libertarian communism were established. These three principles are established for the first time in the organization, constituting the birth of anarchism at the international level.

Nanda returns to thank Pedro for presenting us with a lot of background information that listeners can take note of and continue investigating at their leisure. She then introduces Vadim Damier, speaking from Russia as a representative of KRAS, to speak about Kropotkin and the Saint Imier International. Vadim begins:

Peter Kropotkin established contacts with the anti-authoritarian International even before the Congress of Saint Imier, during his trip to Europe in the spring of 1872. Interested in the work of the First International, he met with representatives of its various Belgian syndicalist, Bakuninist, and Marxist currents. He was arrested in 1874, but he managed to escape from Russia in the summer of 1876 and reach Great Britain.

From there, he began to renew old contacts. He wrote to James Guillaume, who began sending materials. In the end of February 1877, he arrived in Switzerland, planning to live and work there.

During the following years, until his expulsion by the Swiss government in 1881, he left the alpine country only for a short time for revolutionary matters. It was in Switzerland, in 1878, where he married a young Russian student, Sofia Ananyeva Rabinovich, who became his life partner to the end. The Swiss years of were the epoch of continuous independent anarchist revolutionary work. It was during this period that anarchism as we would come to know it in the following decades and century, was established.

In the summer of 1877 he edited a newspaper, where he published editorial articles criticizing social democracy and parliamentarianism, proclaiming the constructive ideas of an anarchist alternative. He supported the idea of propaganda of the deed, but interpreted it not as a tactic of assassination attempts and conspiracy, but as the organization of a kind of exemplary uprisings, during which it would be possible to start organizing the ideal anarchist society.

At the same time, he helped organize an anarchist movement among the German- speaking workers of Switzerland and, in August of 1877, was one of the main initiators of the creation of the French federation of the International of Saint Imier. The constitutive assembly of this French federation was held in Kropotkin’s apartment in September of the same year. He moved to Paris in the spring of 1878, actively helping to restore the French movement after the defeat of the Paris commune. He then returned to Switzerland, but soon went to Spain, where he tried to reconcile the rival anarchist factions of the International in in Barcelona and Madrid. In August, he returned to Switzerland and participated in the Jura Federation’s congress in Freiburg. There, he gave an important speech on the anarchist program, with a proposal to intensify agitation with the goal of a free commune, which should become both an organ of insurrection via propaganda of the deed, and the basis of a future free society.

After Freiburg, Kropotkin moved to Geneva, where he finally approached the Geneva branch of the Jura federation, which was at a critical juncture in its reorganization. This was an historical moment in which the movement begins to experience an internal crisis. Together with Paul Brousse, he edited and published La Révolté—the avant- garde newspaper which had become the organ of the federation and indeed of world anarchism until it was banned by th e Swiss authorities. Kropotkin became perhaps the most prominent figure and authority of the Federation. He had to assume the entire burden of organization and propaganda tasks, and he managed brilliantly with this work.

La Révolté became a truly innovative publication in the pages of which comrades formulated and analyzed the main theoretical and tactical questions of the anarchist movement. The articles by Kropotkin have not lost their relevance to anarchist theory to this day. At the same time, he continued to speak at meetings of workers, traveling throughout the country of Switzerland on almost continuous propaganda tour.

The Chaux-de-Fonds Congress, in 1880, was a truly magnificent moment for Kropotkin. He delivered a speech in which he consciously and clearly demonstrated the differences between anarchist/libertarian socialism and democratic/moderate/reformist socialism.

Kropotkin could rightly be considered the main theoretician of the international anarchist movement, the activity of which concerned European governments more and more as time went on. Even to the authorities of Switzerland, he was seen less as a prince, and more as a rebel. His activities aimed at restoring the collapsed international caused particular dissatisfaction. He consistently defended the ideas that later formed the basis of the trade union movement. He insisted that the preparation of the working masses for the revolution was only possible through the economic struggle against the capitalists and landowners, for the immediate interests of the workers—not through the

actions of small clandestine groups, individual attacks, or political struggle for power. He proposed to restore the international as a world union of trade unions—of workers’ unions—within which would operate a more determined union of anarchist militants (such as the Bakuninist alliance). He defended this idea at the social revolutionary congress in London in July of 1881. The congress proclaimed the re-establishment of the international, but this decision turned out to be a formality. In the following years, the anarchist movement was increasingly dominated by tendencies towards disorganization and dispersion.

Nanda introduces Laure Akai, a ZSP colleague from Poland, who will speak about the end of the federalist International to its reformation. Laure says:

Although it seems that the organizations adhering to the federalist ideologies had common positions, in 1874, you could already see different positions within the federation.

For example, regarding the real role of parliamentarianism, with some delegates thinking a more social democratic vision and others more interested and in the popular revolts (like the Italians) or in propaganda (of the fact). There were differences between the organizations and there was no consensus on what had to be done. Many members of the AIT (again, not the current one) felt more inclined to cooperate with social democratic elements. Many people from the AIT believed that all anti-capitalist or socialist workers should be brought together. In the Bern Congress, two years later in 1876, some others fought concretely for the reunification of the anarchists with all the other socialists, including the Marxists and regardless of their tactics.

The following year such a project of bringing together all socialists was taken up by the world socialist congress in 1877. It can be said that many people resigned due to their hopes of reunification. Many of the former members participated in that congress with ideas that were already different, and in a space of a few years many people and organizations had changed their positions—especially towards social democratic or even Marxist positions.

On the other hand, there was a massive defection from the AIT when they thought that another organization would be formed.

The revolutionized anarchists and syndicalists kept trying to form something else, and the first serious attempt was in 1881. A congress was held in London, and they formed an organization called the Black International. What is interesting is that this organization—this federation—did not have significance at the international level, but it gained importance in the United States. We all know the names of the Haymarket Martyrs, and other people who were active in this federation. In terms of size, however, it was perhaps 5,000 people at its peak. So it was not a very broad federation, but it was important and after the Haymarket situation, it fell apart for 20 years.

There was no serious attempt to form anything for quite some time, but in 1907 there was an anarchist conference in London. It was not a syndicalist conference, but the delegates discussed syndicalism as a tactic. An anarchist international office was founded, and in this office there were two very important people for the foundation of the current situation.

They wanted to make propaganda towards the founding of something new. Then, in

1913, they organized a trade union congress in London. There were many problems.

The first problem was that the French were in another international, a social democratic federation, and they did not want the anarchists to form something new because they did not want competition. Because of this, there were delegates who did not support forming a federation. So there was no consensus, and instead of forming a new movement, they began to publish a bulletin. But soon it was 1914, and WW1 broke out.

The war was a catastrophe for trade unionists, because on the one hand it again showed ideological differences between the organizations that held interventionist ideas, and those that did not.

It was also very difficult to carry out any activity during the war.

And then after a few years it was the Russian Revolution, and this was also a problem for the foundation of a new movement as well. The Bolsheviks had a project to unite all the socialist workers in a red international under the party’s control. Some thought that there was no point in making a desperate organization at that time. Some Russian anarchists indicated that they were organizing and working hard, but they were brutally repressed by the Bolsheviks. Many of them were arrested, tortured, murdered. Some members of the future IWA were aware of this, while others were not.

But when the red international held its congress in 1921, the delegates who had previously been more in favor of working with the Bolsheviks decided that they could not be in this red international, and finally decided to form the current IWA-AIT and this year is the centenary of the foundation of that international, which was founded in December 1922.

Nanda returns to thank Laure for her presentation, and gives the floor back to Erick, who wishes to add some more information. Erick says:

When comrade Pedro talks about the resolutions of the Saint Imier Congress, it is important to add that most of the sections of the international were not even aware of the Congress in The Hague. The unions in London, which at that time were beyond a million members, did not even know Karl Marx, despite the fact that he had spoken on behalf of these unions. They joined the proposals of the Saint Imier Congress, not because they were all anarchists, but because there were unions that shared the idea of autonomy of the sections, even as pertains to the level of ideological questions. That is, as long as they were independent and respectful of the autonomy of the federalism of the other sections, it was even possible for them to have ideas outside of anarchism, and have those ideas be respected.

Marx and Engels, who tried to liquidate this autonomy, this federalism, this freedom of action within the international…when there are people who say that what happened in Russia, [the authoritarianism which occurred in the wake of] in the Russian revolution has nothing to do with Karl Marx..well, they are blatantly lying.

Because there is a fairly clear antecedent in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the aspiration to centralism, even before taking political power within the international. Since its inception, Marxism is centralist and tries to attack autonomy and federalism from the beginning.

Another thing that I found very interesting about Vadim’s presentation—he was very right when saying this is the concept of propaganda due to the fact that it is one of those who give it its name, referring to a series of events, organizations, acts, uprisings or even facts that could promote the ideas of anarchism already on the field of practice.

It did not refer to those attacks of which the tabloid press takes great advantage to exploit against anarchism, events that happened because the anarchists were forced to act in that way to defend themselves—not because it was an aspiration of the anarchists to act violently, but because they were attacked, harassed, imprisoned, murdered in the streets. Violence is not necessarily propaganda in and of itself.

Nanda announces the beginning of a brief Q&A session, as viewers have asked the following three questions:

1. Today the democratic paradigm appears hegemonic, so workers act as citizens and vote every few years. In what way does anarchism currently participate in social struggles without falling into asking for solutions from the state and thus legitimizing it?

2. What would be the reflection that you make regarding the present of anarchism, in thinking about the past?

3. What role has the platformist tendency played in the IWA?

Pedro spoke first, saying: Unfortunately, the International of Saint Imier declined towards social democracy mainly because the governments were opened at that time, from the 1870s. For example, in the United Kingdom, laws were created in favor of legal trade unionism. That began to happen throughout Europe, the legalization of unions to bring them within the structure of the state as institutions—part of the gear of the proletarian meat-grinding machine—and also the political parties were growing with workers’ militancy.

As Laure described, this caused large masses of workers who were to go over to social democracy. This is a phenomenon that did not occur so much in Latin America, because in Latin America this sort of thing always occurs with a time lag. So for us, the Congress of Saint Imier was very important. There are many who said that it was impossible that things like railways and other public works could be developed through workers’ organizations, and that it was necessary to maintain a certain state—that was a discussion that took place within the San Imier international. They allowed it to develop in a completely anarchist way. The reason this

International is interesting is because it built all the characteristics that would later be repeated in anarchist organizations throughout the world—including ours,in 1922. So, although it was a first attempt that failed, the postulates that remained allowed, for example, in Latin America to develop the workers’ organizations at the beginning of the 1900s that collected all that remained, thanks to those who were part of the Saint Imier International, who condensed and collected these ideas.

In Latin America, for example, from 1900 onward there was an explosion of labor

organizations that knew these European texts. Revolutionaries began arriving who already had experience from the Saint Imier International, or at least knew of it and what happened there. So it was possible to put together a large number of workers’ organizations prior to 1922, because of that knowledge and experience.

When it comes to the tendency of elements within radical movements to transition toward social democracy, this is a story that has repeated over and over, and is still relevant to us today. So it’s important to know this story.

Pedro adds: Social democracy was one of the things responsible for the catastrophe that occurred in the 20th Century. Social democracy bears much of the responsibility for Hitler coming to power, due to its lukewarm measures, as does the communist party for trying to sabotage all kinds of independent action. If we take into account these serious events that happened in the context of the 20th century, the lesson of the Congress of Saint Imier is that you cannot have alliances in a concrete way with people or with organizations that aspire to the conquest of political power. I measure as one of the decisive moments of the Congress of San Imier, the resolution that says that the destruction—not the conquest—of political power is the first duty of the proletariat. It does not seem to me that we can base all the actions, attitudes, organizations, or thoughts that we may have for the present on what happened 150 years ago. But today, as 150 years ago, political power is not conquered. It is not reformed. One cannot attempt to beautify it. Rather, it must be destroyed. That idea has to be the backbone, so to speak, of our actions.

And finally, Vadim says: Two things are important for participation in current social movements. The first is to propagate and defend the sovereignty of the general assemblies of the workers in struggle. The second is to defend the independence of the workers in struggle against all the institutions of the state and all parties in the social democracy. That is our legacy of anarchism from the past and our duties for the

present time.

Nanda closes the presentation by thanking the colleagues who participated, as well as the listeners in the audience, and those who asked question, and stating her hopes to meet again in a space where we can share experiences and other important things that are part of the history of anarchism.

link to the Youtube recording of the Conference –

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