Social Democracy and Anarchism in the International Workers' Association 1864-1877.

Author:McKay, Iain
Position:Book review

Rene Berthier (trans. A.W. Zurbrugg), Social Democracy and Anarchism in the International Workers' Association 1864-1877

Talgarth, Brecon: The Merlin Press, 2015; 256pp; ISBN 9780850367195

This is an excellent work, recommended to both anarchist activists and those interested in the rise of modern revolutionary anarchism. Berthier, a veteran French anarcho-syndicalist activist, has produced a work which successfully challenges both the standard narrative on the First International (written, as usual, by the winners) and those who seek to deny the actual history of anarchism and its roots in the European labour movement (and, somewhat surprisingly, that number includes Berthier himself).

Berthier's account shows how the International Workers' Association (IWA) was formed in 1864 by French and British trade unionists and quickly became a forum for socialist discussion over both strategy ('political action' versus direct action unionism) and goals (nationalisation versus workers' self-management). He also explains how Marx and Engels used bureaucratic manipulation to secure their control over it, and that Bakunin came to play a key role in the IWA because he articulated the majority position, which came to be called (over thirty years later) 'syndicalist'--i.e. direct class struggle by means of federations of unions. Finally, Berthier shows that Marx and Engels, regardless of claims by post-1914 Marxists, were social democrats and that their attempts to foster this position marginalised them so completely that they ended up expelling the majority of the organisation. All of which is correct, and Berthier supports his arguments well (although he ignores some writings by Marx and Engels which show how obviously social democratic they were, Lenin's confusion of 'the state' with 'the state machine' notwithstanding). He also seeks to understand why the 'anti-authoritarian' IWA disappeared in 1877, in spite of being the majority of the European labour movement a mere five years previously. This is where he makes his only mistake.

He suggests that the anarchist movements that emerged within that body 'marked a break with positions defended by Bakunin' (p 163) rather than being the continuation of them. Here he is on weaker ground--as can be seen from what can only be considered as a complete misreading of Malatesta's and Kropotkin's ideas on both organisation and syndicalism. Berthier is right that the IWA disappeared when many anarchists, inspired...

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