International Congresses and the Congress of London

Peter Kropotkin


(Les Temps Nouveaux, 29 August 1896)

A Page from History

Things happen so quickly nowadays that we very easily forget events which are of the greatest importance in contemporary history.

Among these events there is one which stands out above all the others. I am referring to the great achievements of the International Working Men’s Association in its early years and the tremendous scope of its first four Congresses from 1866 to 1869.

What made these Congresses so successful? What gave them their historic scope, a scope so great that in spite of what those who boast that they are “scientific socialists” may have to say on this question, the fact remains that the minutes of these four Congresses constitute the epitome of all modern socialism? It is there, in reality, and not in the obscure writings of Marx and Engels that we have learned the socialism of modern times, the socialism to which we adhere.

The answer is simple. The first Congresses of the International did not seek to control the socialist movement: they sought rather to find its expression. They did not pose as “Parliaments of Labour”, this absurd name was invented later. They were simply places where the workers of the two worlds could exchange ideas.


The founders of modern socialism – of the “fourth awakening of the proletariat” to quote Malon – did not try to make themselves the masters of the young movement. They tried to learn; learn from some, and teach others. The great masses of workers, they said, are being stirred by new currents. It is not the com­munism of Fourier, or Cabet, of Robert Owen or of Pierre Leroux, nor the “governmentarianism” of Louis Blanc nor the mutualism of Proudhon, nor the neo-christianism of Lamennais. Contemporary ideas hold on, undoubtedly; but they differ essentially [from the new ones]. It is necessary, therefore, that these [new] currents of ideas grow, that they are affirmed, that they find their expression.

It is not to the bourgeoisie – not even the most highly inspired – to whom we must turn for this concrete expression. The whole mental set of the bourgeoisie is warped by its science, by its education, by the fact that it lives at the expense of the working class. It is the workers themselves – the most active and most intelligent of them, who remain in the ranks of the toiling masses, who partake of its life, of its joys and its sorrows, whom we must ask to express these aspirations. And they must do so, not by placing themselves on the field of political struggles where they surely will be swallowed up by the bourgeois gentlemen, but by remaining on the field of economic struggles – the day by day struggles against capitalist domination.

The watchword of that epoch was, “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.” And this formula was taken literally. Later on it was replaced by the deceitful formula that the task of the emancipation of the working classes should be left to a few, chosen in the electoral lottery.

No. At that time it was understood that for the achievement of the social revolution it was necessary that the popular spirit find new forms of social organisation – forms which could not be representative government, nor a State such as was elaborated for the triumph of the Roman and Christian idea, nor the governmental Jacobinism of Louis Blanc – but something completely new arising from the needs of modern production and distribution.

Something as different from that which exists at present as the communes of the twelfth century, described by Thierry and Sismondi, were dif­ferent from the feudal world against which they revolted. Something that will emerge from the struggle of the workers against capital, from their national and inter­national unions, from the [common] interests which exist amongst the workers of the two worlds, outside of the present political forms, from the ideas germinating in their midst.

That is what the International was seeking when its work was interrupted by the war of 1870.


All the workers, however, do not think in the same fashion. The great majority, on the contrary, sees nothing outside of reforms or political revolutions. Many dream of dictatorship; a large number adore Jacobin terror. The great mass puts its faith in universal suffrage and believes in worker [electoral] candidates. Others do not see how much economic serfdom dominates political liberties. Lodged in the tradition of 1793 and 1848, they fail to see that the industrial worker and the peasant will remain the serfs of the rich and the nobility, whatever their political rights, so long as they themselves are not masters of the land, the factories and all the social wealth.

Consequently the International had to pursue a twofold aim.

In its daily life it would establish unions among men of various trades in each city, region and nation, and among all the trades internationally.

And through its Congresses it would carry on propaganda work – far beyond the confines of its own ranks, it would speak to the whole world and disseminate its ideas among all peoples –  especially those not as yet influenced by the revolutionary vanguard of the working class.


In its Congresses the workers – the workers only – in the various trades and from various nations would learn to know each other. They would develop mutual understanding for the purpose of ensuring the success of their strikes by means of regional and international solidarity. They would learn to paralyse, to stun the capitalist monster by the power of international attack. They would know how to put it in its death throes, to make it yield to the united forces of the workers.

They would study in the meantime how to produce and distribute the products of their labour by themselves. From those understandings, renewed each year by means of international exchanges of ideas, would develop the plans for the new forms of economic organisation which should eventually replace capitalist production and distribution.

At the same time the regional and international Congresses would serve as a powerful medium for the propagation of the socialist idea as well as for the elaboration of new ideas.


Each Congress would decide upon two or three important problems to be studied in preparation for the following Congress. These questions would be posed and discussed, in the period between the two Congresses, at first in the local workers groups, then in small regional or national Congresses and finally in the annual international Congress.

Men of good will would come together and prepare elaborate reports summarising the local and regional discussion; these reports would be used as the basis for discussion at the next Congress. After being published in the minutes they would be used as material for discussion and for propaganda in newspapers.

No scientific congress was ever better organised in this respect than the Congresses of the International – for this organisation was not the work of a single individual but the fruit of the practical collective spirit.


That is why, in the realm of everyday practical life, each Congress marked a step in advance in the establishment of mutual understanding among the various trades. One saw trades which formerly were at odds with each other – for example, the Swiss clockmakers and building workers – now united for common action; one saw nations, formerly enemies, now united to hold common council in a strike.

Likewise, each Congress marked a step in advance in the realm of ideas. The International shattered many old prejudices. Lefrançais presented his splendid thesis against dictatorship; Liebknecht (in 1869) launched his formidable attack upon parliamentary action and against the political fakers who attempted to drag the proletariat into electoral struggles. In the sphere of economics there was, at the Lausanne Congress, in 1867, a free discussion of the public utilities and on the role of the State, on the land question at Brussels (1868), and on property in general at Basle (1869) – each of these marked a new step in the evolution of ideas, each report being a major piece of work rising from the heart of the International.


The Basle Congress was the last of this kind.

In 1870 there came the war. France raised the flag of the Commune and was bled under the heels of the French murderers as well as under the heel of Bismarck. The Germans, inflamed by their military successes which they attributed to the “governmental organisation” of Moltke and Bismarck, to “discipline”, to the political State, devoted themselves body and soul to governmentalism, to politicalism. From being “socialist” they turned into “socialist democrats”, into Jacobins, into ultra-Statists.

Germany had conquered France; was that not sufficient evidence of the value of “strong government”? Socialism, therefore, required a strong government.

From then on all the Congresses, including the current fiasco in London, had as their aim establishment of a socialist government.

Those who believe that we are exaggerating need only to read the invectives in the social-democratic press against the anarchists who place obstacles in the way of the formation of such a government. The establishment of an international socialist government became, from that time on, the goal of all the international Congresses.

At the Conference of 1871, held in London, the Marxists of London, supported by the infamous Utin, promulgated the doctrine of “the conquest of political power” while laying down the bases of an international government.

At the Hague, in 1872, the Marxists, supported by the French Blanquists, preferred to exclude the Jura Federation and Bakunin, to split the International in two and to send the General Council to New York to die an ignominious death – “to kill the International” – rather than to see an International which (in France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and in Switzerland) did not recognise the authority of the Marxist General Council.

In Ghent, in 1878, [there was the] same attempt to establish the international socialist government – an attempt that fails again, thanks to the resistance of the embryonic federation of France (represented by [Paul] Brousse), of Spain, of Italy, of Switzerland and, partly, of Belgium – failure that Vorwärts [Forward], the organ of the German social-democrats, always blames, with reason, the nine anarchist delegates for.

Finally, in Paris and Zurich, the whole struggle against the anarchists was just a struggle to oust from the international labour movement those who do not want an international socialist government.

Everything was sacrificed in this struggle. All forces were exhausted by this fight.


And what is the result?

While the anarchists worked continually on the development of their conceptions of a society without government, while they were working out the problems and questions of production, distribution, cooperation, of the aims of production, of morality, or philosophy – the other party remained absolutely stationary.

Since the Basle Congress – that is to say, since twenty-eight years ago – not a single idea, not a single thought which might indicate a forward step in socialist evolution, has issued from the International Congress. For to say: “Let us be numerous in Parliament and vote for an eight-hour law” is not to express an idea. This is not a contribution to the immense social problem. It is merely a pious wish, a pious fancy.

And while international Congresses of various trades are being held (such as the international Congress of glass-workers which has just ended), while international conferences (conducted without ballyhoo) of American and British dockers together with Belgian workers, are preparing for large-scale international action which shall reduce working hours and may perhaps lead to the expropriation of the docks – while all this is taking place the international socialist worker Congresses [of the Second International] have been for the past twenty-eight years precisely what the last Congress was: the arena for the display of personal feuds and ambitions.

That is where we are.

As for the London Congress and the end which was pursued by parliamentarians; we discuss that in a forthcoming issue, with all the necessary details.

V (end)

(Les Temps Nouveaux, 10 October 1896)

We have seen the past of international congresses. Now let us take a look at the future.

Taking socialism as a whole, let us first note that no party can encompass it in its entirety. To try to do this, to strive to make it happen, as the social-democrats do, is a waste of time; it is to betray the cause that you claim to defend.

We must first recognise – recognise with happiness – that the movement of ideas which has been named socialism has gone beyond the period when we could hope to bring it within the framework of a single party. A party can no longer encompass it as a whole. It is already a flood, that we cannot dam anymore.

Like human thought itself, like society, it has taken on a variety of aspects and nuances that respond to the thousand shades of the human spirit, to the thousand tendencies that emerge in a society that lives, that thinks, that develops.

This variety of aspects is its strength. It is this that allows it to be universalised, to penetrate all classes of society – to make inroads into the peasant-owner and the peasant in the municipality, the worker of the large factory and the worker of the small Parisian business, the thinker, the writer, the artist. It is this that allows them to be united, all, in the same aspiration for equality and freedom, through the socialisation, in one form or another, of social capital – the heritage of humanity – put at the service of all.

All great movements have had this characteristic of universality and variety. We are happy that socialism has finally reached this stage, that it has gone beyond the embryonic period of the party, that it has become so widespread to the point of permeating society. This is proof that it will no longer be smothered.

So trying to bring this vast movement into a single party, to put it under a single programme, as the social-democrats do, is a waste of time. We must recognise the variety: it is life itself.


This being given, recognised, proven – what can be the role of future international socialist Congresses?

It must be openly recognised that any attempt to impose a government, a general guardianship on this movement is as criminal as it was [in the First International], that it is still the papacy’s attempt to want to rule the world.

It is one thing to believe in the usefulness of a government within a party. It is, after all, only an error of judgement. But to believe that you can impose a ruler [gouverne] on to a movement that tends to become as universal as civilised society itself – that is simply criminal madness, worthy of the Catholic Church but unworthy of a socialist.

This is what should be, first of all, understood in the movement; what the authoritarian socialists themselves must be brought to recognise.


Indeed, take any nation – France, England, Germany, Russia, whatever! [–] and you try to give an account of this immense throng of interests, thoughts, aspirations, that a nation represents.

England is the country in which industry dominates, and where already half of the country’s workers are enlisted in large factories. It is immense, compared to the continent. But can it be said that the interests of the nation are summed up in the interests of these two or three million workers? That it would suffice to render them masters of their factories to solve the social question? That he who speaks in their name, and asks, on their behalf, the socialisation of the factories, speaks in the name of the working class of England? – And the workers of the soil? And the form of possession of the soil itself which, at bottom, takes precedence over all economic questions? And the trade that sustains more people than the soil itself in this country of merchants? And these millions of others who live from work in the thousand small industries that abound in England as elsewhere?

How much more complicated is the social question when you go to France, where half of the population exists on the products of the soil? In Germany, where two-thirds, if not more, are in the same situation? In Russia, where nine-tenths of the population are farmers? In Italy and Spain, which are somewhere in between Russia and France?

Well, do you represent those millions, scattered amongst the villages and hamlets, and the multitude of their interests, their conflicts, their mutual relations, their relationships to the thousand strings of the State – and the sincere man in his thought must recognise that there are thousands and thousands of interests about which socialism, as it is today, has not only never pondered, but did not even suspect.

Nobody – no individual in the world, not even a universal arch-genius – can speak in the name of those thousands and thousands of interests. Nobody except the totality of all those interested parties, speaking, and above all acting, themselves, learning [what] their interests [are] through their very action.


Since the current conditions of economic and political life do not meet the needs of society, we see a thousand movements arising and sprouting from all points in society which seek to demolish these conditions, vaguely inspired by this fundamental idea of socialism: “The wealth already produced and the means to produce new riches should belong to society – not to the individual.” Movements which seek, each in its own domain, the means of reaching this aim, and whose very goal is determined and defined as they work to achieve it.


Already today we see four or five groups of various movements taking shape.

We have the social-democratic movement, representing in our societies the Roman, Catholic, and later Jacobin tradition of the centralised, disciplined State, concentrating in its hands the political, economic and social life of nations. This tendency exists in society, it has its past, and in socialism – the reflection of society – it is represented by the more or less social democracy, with a thousand nuances of its own.

Then we have the anarchist movement, which has frankly affirmed itself as communist, and aims at the demolition of the State to substitute for it the direct free agreement of consumer and producer organisations, grouped to satisfy all the infinitely varied needs of human nature. It represents the popular tradition of societies.

In this same movement, we still have the group which, watchful about safeguarding the rights of the individual, [is] based mainly on individualism, making cheap points against socialisation (the primary basis, in our opinion, for the blossoming of individuality); a movement which still has its reason for being [raison d’être], to counterbalance the authoritarian tendencies of Communism.

Then we have an immense, a colossal trade union worker movement, which, by modest increases of wages and reductions in hours of work, has already done more, perhaps, than all the other movements to affirm the rights and respect of the man in the worker, and which does not aim at anything less than to drive the master out of the factory, the mine, the transport routes, by waging guerrilla warfare every day.

Then comes another large movement – very large in England – the co-operative movement, straying from its origins but tending nevertheless today to pour its current into the great socialist flood, which will eventually win. A movement that aims to eliminate that immense number of intermediaries who place themselves between the producer and the consumer, and tries to replace the boss by associated producers.

Then come all these movements of agreements between peasants which, under the name of syndicates, are created as soon as the law ceases to punish them as criminals; the varied and deep movements that forge links of direct agreement between farmers and which it would be absolutely necessary to bring back into the open and put in contact with the general flood of socialism. The movement of co-operation in small trades, which occurs mainly in Russia under the initiative of a few pioneers, comes to line up with the two previous ones.

Then come all these movement which, either in the form of consciousness objection as in France or religion as in Russia, strongly work in the popular masses to produce rebellion against the State in its two main manifestations – military service and taxation. Movements that can only be ignored if you want to remain absolutely ignorant of the immense role played by similar movements in the history of all popular uprisings in previous periods.

In addition, we are witnessing a profound communalist movement, the effects of which we have already seen in the uprisings of the communes in Paris, in the south [of France], in Spain. A movement which has deeply stirred minds, since 1871, in France and Spain and which, in England, has lately been given a strong push, not only in the direction of what they tend to call “municipal socialism,” but even more so in a whole body of ideas germinating in the working masses.

And finally, it is impossible to ignore the various movements that occur in the best elements of the bourgeoisie itself, and which result in either a whole series of more-or-less philanthropic institutions, that is to say by movements to manual labour, “to the people,” “to the land,” and so on, as well as by a tendency accentuated every day in literature, art and science, and which denotes that the bourgeoisie is already losing, in its best representatives, faith in its right to exploitation.

A host of other small movements should be mentioned – such the liberation of the individual from [hypocritical] morality, the emancipation of women, ethical movements, etc., etc. But, let us move on!

Finally there is all this throng of rebels, here individually, there in groups, who revolt against all social and political inequities, who sacrifice themselves to awaken the slumbering society and, by their actions, broach all [issues]: exploitation, servitude in all its aspects, hypocritical morality.


And they want all these movements, in which thousands of men and women are seeking, in one way or another, to directly transform society, moving with more or less efficiency towards the socialisation of wealth – they want all these varied movements to cease to exist and be epitomised in one mode of action: that of naming candidates to parliaments or municipalities!!

They want to absorb all these energies in electoral struggles – for what? That the deputies, who, themselves, do not do this work of direct transformation of morals, institutions and ideas, find – intuitively, I suppose – the means of bringing about all these transformations by means of laws?

They want those who prepare the social revolution in actions and concrete ideas to abandon this task to the makers of laws. As if it were enough to become a legislator to understand all that these millions of individuals learn in their daily struggles against authority, the boss, the priest, the policemen, the State [employed] teacher, the narrow selfishness of ignorance, laziness of mind!...

To hear such nonsense said and preached is almost enough to make you despair of a human nature that never seems to overcome this idea of saviours, of popes discovering the truth by intuition from above and producing a miracle!


Well, since it is certain that the personal contact of intellects and conflict stimulates minds, and that this contact is achieved better in Congresses than by the press, we do not need a Congress, we need a hundred, a thousand.

Many are already held. There is no lack of Congresses [–] regional and national, trade union, co-operative, although agricultural unions are still lacking, [those] concerning the work of the small trades, etc. But that is not all.

All these currents, necessarily, will be led to pour into socialism. The era requires it. Is this a reason, however, for waiting, with folded arms, for the Marxist “negation of the negation” to produce itself? On the contrary, it is necessary that in each of these congresses the voice of the socialist, especially the anarchist, should be heard. Let him speak there, not as a teacher who comes to lecture the children or to come to tell them that all their work is useless – but as a man who understands that all these currents have their reason for being; that without them the social revolution would be impossible; that they all bring their little stone to the reconstruction of society, which must be done locally and on the spot, by those same groups; that all must eventually be inspired by the idea of the century – as a man who understands this and who comes to bring them this inspiration.

The social-democrat cannot do that; he can only say to them: “Vote!” It must therefore be up to the anarchist to go there, to fight, to speak, where they hardly suspect the revolution to be carried out; to speak to them – not of the uselessness of the work, but of the new utility it would gain if this small current is poured into the great flood of social reconstruction. In addition, a compelling need is happening right now. The discussion of socialism, as a whole, was interrupted in 1870, and has never been resumed since. A whole flood of preposterous theories is circulating at this moment under the name of “scientific socialism,” and, under this cover, they are debating nonsense [énormités] that would have made poor Marx’s hair stand on end.

It is time for the discussion of socialism to resume, for a complete review of the goods circulating under the brand “patented S.G.D.G.” to be made[1] – not only in the press, as our friends D. Nieuwenhuis and Tcherkesoff have undertaken, but in plain sight, in front of the socialists of the two worlds.

The newspaper, the pamphlet, the book prepares the ground. But it must also be done openly [avec éclat], in congresses, at large congresses – prepared by discussions in groups – to which would be invited all those who are keen to clarify ideas or to obtain information themselves.

It is obviously in this direction that it will be necessary to work.

End Notes

[1] “Sans Garantie Du Gouvernement” (S.G.D.G.) was legally required to be stamped on French products with a legal patent between 1844 and 1868. Meaning “Without Guarantee of the Government,” it signified that the patent did not mean that the State guaranteed the proper functioning of the product. (Translator)