The First International: About the fiftieth anniversary of the Congress of Saint-Imier

Errico Malatesta

Umanità nova, 9 September 1922[1]

In mid-September, it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Congress of Saint-Imier (Switzerland), famous in the history of the First International and of socialism in general because from it begins, officially one could say, the anarchist movement.

Swiss comrades celebrated the event during a party amongst friends, in which at least some of the few survivors undoubtedly took part; it must have been a moving celebration for anyone who has lived through these days of laborious intellectual struggles, enthusiasm intact, and still retains whole and stronger than ever, after fifty years of vicissitudes of all kinds and not the happiest, the faith and hope of his early youth.

The International Workers’ Association, outlined in 1862, took shape in London in September 1864 and changed overnight the terms of the struggle for progress and for the emancipation of man.

Until then, when they took an interest in political and social questions, the working masses did so in the wake of and on behalf of bourgeois parties and they expected everything from the coming to power of better men and governments. The proletariat lacked class consciousness, the consciousness of the antagonism of interests between those who work and those who live from the labour of others, the consciousness of the fundamental injustice from which social evils flow; and so the great majority, almost all of the workers, even the most advanced, aspired only to superficial changes (to change the forms of government), to petty reforms which left intact the right of a few to monopolise the means of production and thus real domination over the whole of social life.

A new era began with the International, founded on the initiative of the few who at the time understood the true nature of the social question and the necessity of removing the workers from the leadership of the bourgeois parties. The workers, who had always been a brute force in the wake of others, good or bad, rose to the rank of the main factor in human history and, by fighting for their own emancipation, they fought for the good of all, for human progress, to found a superior civilisation.

We have already written on this and we can only repeat it:[2]

The International separated the workers from the wake of bourgeois parties and endowed them with a class consciousness, a programme of their own, a policy of their own; it posed and discussed all the most vital social questions and elaborated the whole of modern socialism which some writers then claimed was the product of their own heads; it made the mighty tremble, it roused the ardent hopes of the oppressed, it inspired sacrifice and heroism… and just as it most looked destined to lay capitalist society to rest, it disintegrated and perished.


The fact that the International broke apart is generally attributed either to the persecutions to which it was subjected, or to personal struggles that arose within it, or to the way in which it was organised, or to all of these causes simultaneously.

This is not my opinion.

The persecutions would not have been enough to break up the Association and they often even served to make it more popular and give it momentum.

The personal struggles were actually only a secondary concern and, as long as the movement had vitality, they instead served to spur the various parties and most prominent personalities into action.

The manner of its organisation, which had grown centralist and authoritarian under the impetus of the General Council in London and especially of Karl Marx who was its driving force, actually led to the International splitting into two branches: but the federalist and anarchist branch that included the federations from Spain, Italy, francophone Switzerland, Belgium, southern France, and independent sections in other countries, did not long outlive the authoritarian branch. It will be argued that even within the anarchist branch there still existed the maggot of authoritarianism and that, even there, a few individuals were able to do and undo in the name of the masses who passively followed them, and that is true. But it should be noted that in this case, the authoritarianism was unintended and did not derive from the forms of organisation, nor from the principles inspiring it; it was a natural and inevitable consequence of the phenomenon to which I chiefly attribute the break-up of the Association, a phenomenon I will now explain.

Within the International, which was founded as a federation of resistance societies to provide the broadest base for the economic struggle against capitalism, two tendencies very quickly surfaced, one authoritarian, the other libertarian, and they divided the Internationalists into hostile factions, which had the names of Marx and Bakunin, at least on the two extreme wings.

One wanted to turn the Association into a disciplined body under the orders of a Central Committee, the other wanted it to a free federation of autonomous groups. One wanted to subjugate the masses in order to do it good by force, according to the age-old authoritarian superstition, the others wanted to raise them up and persuade them to free themselves. But those who inspired the two factions had this characteristic feature in common: they passed on their own ideas to the mass of the membership of the Association, and thought that they had converted them when they had obtained a more or less unconscious adherence.

This is how we saw the International quickly become mutualist, collectivist, communist, revolutionary, anarchist; and the speed of this evolution, which the reports of the Congresses and in the daily press attest, could not correspond to a real and simultaneous evolution in the great mass of its members.

As there were no different bodies for the economic struggle and the political and ideological struggle, and as all  Internationalists applied all their activity on the plane of thought and action within the International, it inevitably followed that the most advanced individuals would have had to go down to and remain at the level of the backward and sluggish mass or –  and this is what happened – progress and evolve with the illusion that the mass would understand and follow them.

These more advanced elements studied, discussed, discovered the needs of the people, they formulated the vague aspirations of the masses into concrete programs, they affirmed socialism, they affirmed anarchism, they predicted the future and they prepared for it – but they killed the Association. The sword had worn out the scabbard.

Not that I am saying that this was a bad thing. If the International had remained a simple organisation for resistance and not been buffeted by the storms of party thought and passions, the International would have survived as the English Trade Unions survived, useless and perhaps even harmful to the cause of human emancipation. It is better that it perished throwing fertile seeds into the wind: and in fact, it is from it that the socialist movement and anarchist movement were born.

But I say to you that today we cannot, must not, remake the International of old. Today there are well-established socialist and anarchist movements; today, the illusions and ambiguities in which the old International lived and died are no longer possible. The causes that killed the old Workers’ International, that is to say the antagonism between authoritarians and libertarians on the one hand, and the distance between the thinkers and the semi-conscious mass driven only by its interests, on the other, these causes can still thwart the birth, development and survival of an International which is, like the first, simultaneously a society for economic resistance, a workshop of ideas, and a revolutionary association.

A new International (I speak of an association of workers united as workers, and not of associations founded on a sharing of revolutionary ideas and aims), a new Workers’ International should, in order to be viable and fulfil its mission, have the aim of uniting all workers, or as many as possible, without distinction of social, political, or religious outlook, for the struggle against capitalism; this is why it must be neither individualist, nor collectivist, nor communist; it must be neither monarchist nor republican, nor anarchist; it should be neither religious nor anti-religious. It should have a single common idea, a single condition [for entry], a single mission: to want to fight the bosses.

Hatred of the boss is the beginning of salvation.

And if, later, enlightened by propaganda, educated by the struggle which teaches it to go back to the causes of social ills and to seek their remedies, stimulated by the example of the revolutionary parties, forced by the reaction of the bosses, the mass of the members were to burst into socialist, anarchist, and anti-religious affirmations, so much the better because then the progress would be real and not illusory.

Basically, this is the goal, this is the hope that makes us interested in the labour movement.

An old Internationalist

In 1871, immediately after the Paris Commune, taking advantage of the fact that the political conditions in various States prevented the delegates of the federalist sections from going to London, the General Council in London had wanted, during a “conference” of expressly selected people, to impose on the whole International its authority and its particular doctrine: the conquest of political power.

The Italian Federation of the International was the first to react: meeting in August in Rimini, it severed all solidarity with the Marxist General Council in London with the following resolution:

Considering that the London “Conference” (September 1871) sought, by its IXth decision, to impose on the entire International Workers’ Association a particular doctrine which is exactly that of the German Communist Party;

– that the General Council was the instigator and supported it;

– that the doctrine in question, that of the authoritarian communists, is the negation of the revolutionary sentiment of the Italian proletariat;

– that the General Council has used unworthy means such as slander and deceit for the sole purpose of reducing the entire International Association to only its authoritarian communist doctrine;

– that the General Council has shown the measure of its unworthiness by its restricted circular from London, dated 5 March 1872, in which, continuing its slanderous and deceitful activity, it  reveals an unbridled passion for authority;

– that the reaction of the General Council provoked the revolutionary opposition of the Belgians, the French, the Spanish, the Slavs, the Italians, the Swiss of western Switzerland and the Jura;

– for all these reasons, the meeting solemnly declares, before the workers of the whole world, that henceforth the Italian Federation of the International Workers’ Association severs all solidarity with the London General Council, while reaffirming its economic solidarity with all workers…

Unlike the Italians who flatly refused to go to the Congress at the Hague in 1872, convened for insidious purposes by the General Council, the other Federations opposed to the Marxist leadership decided to participate. And this Congress, even in the opinion of Marxists and of men not very fond of anarchists, did no honour to Marx who certainly had his vengeance and obtained the expulsion of Guillaume and Bakunin, but not without dealing a fatal blow to the First International.

Returning from this Congress, the delegates who had formed the anti-authoritarian minority joined the Italian delegates gathered in Switzerland at the same time. The meeting took place in Saint-Imier on 15 September 1872 at the Maison de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. Attending were: Costa, Cafiero, Bakunin, Malatesta, Nabruzzi, Fanelli, for the Italian Federation; Pindy and Carnot, for various French sections; Lefrançais, for American sections 3 and 22; Guillaume and Schwitzguébel, for the Jura Federation.

After having rejected the arbitrary decisions taken at the Hague, the Congress expressed its opposition by passing the following resolution:

Nature of the Political Action of the Proletariat


– that wanting to impose a uniform line of conduct or political programme on the proletariat as the only path that can lead to its social emancipation is a pretension as absurd as it is reactionary;

– that no one has the right to deprive the autonomous federations and sections of the indisputable right to decide for themselves and to follow the line of political conduct which they believe to be the best, and that any such attempt would inevitably lead us to the most revolting dogmatism;

– that the aspirations of the proletariat can have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organisation and federation, based upon the labour and equality of all and absolutely independent of any political government, and that this organisation and this federation can only be the outcome of the spontaneous action of the proletariat itself, of trades unions and autonomous communes;

Considering that every political organisation can be nothing but the organisation of domination for the benefit of a class and to the detriment of the masses, and that the proletariat, if it wanted to seize power, would itself become a dominant and exploiting class;

The Congress gathered in Saint-Imier declares:

– that the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat;

– that any organisation of a supposedly provisional and revolutionary political power to bring about this destruction can only be another deception and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as all the governments existing today;

– that, rejecting all compromise to achieve the realisation of the Social Revolution, proletarians of every land must establish solidarity of revolutionary action outside of all bourgeois politics.

From that moment anarchism was born. From the individual thought of a few isolated men, it became the collective principle of groups now spread across the world.

End Notes

[1] “La Première Internationale”, Anarchistes, Socialistes et Communistes (Annecy: Group 1er Mai, 1982).

[2] “La nuova Internazionale dei Lavoratori”, La Rivoluzione Sociale (5 November 1902). For a different translation, see “The Workers’ New International”, The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader (AK Press, 2014). (Translator)