International Working Men’s Association

From Anarchy In Action

The International Working Man's Association (IWMA), also known as the "First International," was founded in 1864 and united workers' organizations across many countries. It hosted the famous Marx-Bakunin debates that in some ways precipitated the divergence in decades to come between the Marxist and Anarchist tendencies of labor movements. With 5-8 million members at its peak,[1] the IWMA had anarchist-leaning sections in Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Additionally, Anarchists within the IWMA organized the International Brotherhood and the international Alliance for Socialist Democracy. In 1872, the IWMA split into two competing federations: an anti-authoritarian International and a Marxist International. According to the historian Robert Graham, the IWMA "would ultimately spring an international anarchist movement."[2]

Bakunin's Organizations

When the Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin joined the IWMA in 1868, he formed the Alliance of Socialist Democracy. This public group existed alongside the clandestine International Brotherhood (IB) that Bakunin formulated earlier, in 1866. Bakunin said the Alliance's role was “to give [the] masses a really revolutionary direction.”[3]

The extent of these groups' libertarianism is subject to debate. The International Brotherhood operated as a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. An elected and recallable “central committee” of three to five members gave “supreme direction” to local sections, according to the notes of the Brotherhood's Italian branch.[4] Bakunin wrote in his program for the Brotherhood that the revolutionary association “must necessarily take the form of a secret society,” and members would be “subject to strict discipline.”[5]

In Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, Peter Marshall contends that Bakunin's emphasis on secrecy and conspiracy sharply contradicted with his aims of building a libertarian society.

It is difficult not to conclude that Bakunin's invisible dictatorship would be even more tyrannical than a Blanquist or Marxist one, for its policies could not be openly known or discussed. It would be a secret party; it would operate like conspirators and thieves in the night. With no check to their power, what would prevent the invisible dictators from grasping for absolute power? It is impossible to imagine that Bakunin's goal of an open and democratic society could ever be achieved by distorting the truth and manipulating the people in the way he suggests.[6]

An Anarchist FAQ, while agreeing that “Bakunin was inconsistent in some ways,” highlights the fact that Bakunin's insistence on secrecy must be placed in historical context; at the time “many states were despotic monarchies, with little or no civil rights.”[7] The FAQ also emphasizes that contrary to accusations of Bakunin being secretly authoritarian, he strictly and consistently opposed the taking of state power.[8]

In September 1870, Bakunin and members of the Alliance went to Lyon for two weeks and organized an uprising. After the city council tried to cut municipal workers' pay, thousands protested at City Hall. Bakunin and associates seized City Hall, and control over the hall passed back and forth between them and the National Guard.[9] Protesters put up posters declaring the abolition of the State:

ARTICLE I: The administrative and governmental machinery of the state, having become impotent, is abolished.

ARTICLE 2: All criminal and civil courts are hereby suspended and replaced by the People's justice.

ARTICLE 3: Payment of taxes and mortgages is suspended. Taxes are to be replaced by contributions that the federated communes will have collected by levies upon the wealthy classes, according to what is needed for the salvation of France.

ARTICLE 4: Since the state has been abolished, it can no longer intervene to secure the payment of private debts.

ARTICLE 5: All existing municipal administrative bodies are hereby abolished. They will be replaced in each commune by commit­tees for the salvation of France. All governmental powers will be exer­cised by these committees under the direct supervision of the People.

ARTICLE 6: The committee in the principal town of each of the nation's departments will send two delegates to a revolutionary convention for the salvation of France.

ARTICLE 7: This convention will meet immediately at the town hall of Lyon, since it is the second city of France and the best able to deal energetically with the country's defence. Since it will be supported by the People this convention will save France. TO ARMS!!!

The National Guard eventually regained a stable control of City Hall and arrested Bakunin, but some sympathetic guardsmen helped free him. While the uprising was short-lived, it inspired a wave of other uprisings "in Toulouse, Narbonne, Cette, Perpignan, Limoges, Saint-Etienne, Le Creusot, and other towns."[10] The most significant in the wave of uprisings was the 1871 formation of the Paris Commune. According to Peter Marshall, the uprising "marked the beginning of the revolutionary movement which was to culminate in the Paris Commune the following spring."[11]

Split in the International

During his time in the International, Bakunin debated with Marx and his followers over the question of state power. While Marx argued that socialists should seize the state and use it to eliminate class differences, Bakunin countered that this strategy would simply create a new ruling class of bureaucrats.

In September 1871, Marx and Engels, as members of the IWMA's general council, held a private London Conference, away from continental Europe where anarchists were influential. Graham reports that by this time, the majority of International members in Italy, Spain, Swiss Jura, France, and Belgium had anti-authoritarian orientations.[12] The London Conference had twenty-two voting delegates, nine delegates from national IWMA sections and thirteen delegates of whom were either IWMA general council members or at-large members appointed by the general council. Thus, the voting was heavily skewed to favor the views of the the General Council members, who had never been elected at a general IWMA congress.[13] The delegates at this conference passed a resolution, at odds with the beliefs of Anarchist members, that against the “collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party.”[14]

At the 1872 Hague Congress, Marx, Engels, and their followers succeeded in expelling Bakunin from the IWMA, to reaffirm the Marxist-leaning positions of the London Congress, and to move the IWMA's General Council to New York, where it would be more isolated from anarchist influence. Some of Marx's own allies quit the IWMA in disgust.[15]

In 1873, Bakunin published Statism and Anarchy, which critiqued Marx's program:

Thus, no matter the angle from which we examine the matter, we are led to the same execrable result: government of the vast majority of the masses of the people by a privileged minority. But this minority, the marxians argue, will be made up of workers. Yes, to be sure, of former workers who, as soon as they become the people's governors and representatives, will stop being workers and will begin to look down upon the proletarian world from the heights of the State: they will then represent, not the people, but themselves and their ambitions to govern it. Anyone who queries that does not know human nature.[16]

The Two Internationals

After the Hague Congress, the International split into two separate organizations: Marx's IWMA and the anti-authoritarians' IWMA. Marx's International became, according to Graham, a mere “shell organization.”[17]

The anti-authoritarians' International established itself at the 1972 Saint Imer Congress just a week after the Hague Congress. Attendees created a federalist structure, with each section enjoying full autonomy. They also officially endorsed the value of direct action. Within this anti-authoritarian International, there were debates over strategy. Some tendencies most emphasized trade unions and other tendencies most emphasized communes.[18] The anti-authoritarians' International had sections in Belgium, France, Italy, Russia, Switzerland, Greece, Egypt, Uruguay, Spain, the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands.[19]

In many ways, Marx's attacks on the Anarchists helped create the modern Anarchist movement. Graham writes that after learning of his expulsion, Bakunin, “began developing a more incisive critique of Marxism that went beyond simply criticizing Marx and Engles's underhanded tactics and dealt with the theoretical underpinnings and limitations of Marx's theories.”[20] The anti-authoritarian International played “a role in the creation of an avowedly anarchist international revolutionary movement.”[21]


The anti-authoritarian International collapsed in 1877, the year after the Marxist International. At the final Verviers Congress, sections disagreed on the question of whether to compromise with Marxist political parties. Belgian and Ducth sections left the anti-authoritarian International to pursue Social Democratic projects. The Russian anarcho-syndicalist Vadim Damier contends, “The desire for compromise with the reformists killed the IWMA.”[22]

  1. Peter Fairbrother, Christian Lévesque, Marc-Antonin Hennebert, Transnational Trade Unionism: Building Union Power (New York: Routledge, 2013), 8.
  2. Robert Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 1.
  3. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 101.
  4. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 100.
  5. Mikhail Bakunin, “The International Revolutionary Society or Brotherhood” in ed. Daniel Guerin, trans. Paul Sharkey, No Gods No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism (Oakland: AK Press, 2005), 160.
  6. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism
  7. An Anarchist FAQ, “J.3.7 Doesn't Bakunin's Invisible Dictatorship prove that anarchists are secret authoritarians?,”
  8. ibid.
  9. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 143.
  10. Paul Avrich quoted in Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 143.
  11. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism
  12. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 167.
  13. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 168-9.
  14. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 171.
  15. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 187-188.
  16. Mikhail Bakunin, excerpt from Statism and Anarchy in Guerin, No Gods No Masters, 195.
  17. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 192.
  18. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 197-198, 203.
  19. Vadim Damier, “The history of the federalist IWMA,” Libcom,
  20. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 192-193.
  21. Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy, 198.
  22. Vadim Damier, “The history of the federalist IWMA,” Libcom,