Against the Grain, C.S. Soong, Divide and Conquer or Divide and Subdivide? How Not to Refight the First International (2017), Dr. Karl Marx (1818-1883), Dr. Mark Leier, KPFA, Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876), Pacifica Radio Network, Simon Fraser University (British Columbia), transcript
LUMPENPROLETARIAT—One of the biggest schisms on the left of the political spectrum has manifested itself over the last century or more between two broad groupings—namely, anarchists and socialists. The anarchists see no validity (moral or otherwise) in the authority of the state form. Conversely, the socialists have proven to be more optimistic about the possibilities for progressive or radical reforms within the state form. Dr. Mark Leier, a Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has just published a new pamphlet about this long-running division on the left, taking Dr. Karl Marx and Mr. Mikhail Bakunin as figureheads for these two political tendencies on the left. Indeed, in their time (late 19th century), Marx and Bakunin were (as today) two of the most well-known figures on the left. And this schism eventually shattered the First International (or the International Workingmen’s Association), the first international attempt to unite the left against capitalist exploitation of the world’s working classes.
On today’s edition of free speech radio’s Against the Grain, host C.S. Soong spoke with Dr. Leier about the new pamphlet entitled “Divide and Conquer or Divide and Subdivide? How Not to Refight the First International”. This is a fascinating interview, which provides us with useful background on Marx, Bakunin, the First International, and one of the deepest and most enduring divisions on the left. Dr. Leier compared and contrasted the two hugely influential leftists. And, in so doing, Dr. Leier’s research seemed to suggest (reading pending) that the limitations of their respective temperaments definitely hindered their ability (and, by extension, the ability of their respective followings) to unite an effective and sustainable broad-based anti-capitalist left movement resistance.
[Transcript draft by Messina for Against the Grain and Lumpenproletariat.]
AGAINST THE GRAIN—[5 JUL 2017] “Today on Against the Grain, the battle waged between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin within the First International was, according to historian Mark Leier, some of the nastiest sectarian fighting we have seen on the left. I’m C.S.
“Mark Leier discusses the lives and ideas of Marx and Bakunin, and argues that the two men had more similarities than is commonly believed—coming right up.”
[Against the Grain theme music continues]
“And this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio. I’m C.S. Soong.
“Two leading radicals—Karl Marx and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin—famously clashed in the 1860s. They bickered and fought and heaped invective on each other. And, as a consequence, the International Workingmen’s Association, known as the First International, split in two in 1872. Hostility and tension between socialists and anarchists continue to this day. And Mark Leier, for one, wonders whether it could have been different. (c. 1:36)
“Leier a Professor of History at Simon Fraser University has compared the background and ideas of Marx and Bakunin and has found many similarities, similarities ignored by or unknown to many who’ve written about or analysed the momentous breakup of the First International. Leier has also analysed the temperaments of these two men for clues into why they disliked and distrusted each other so much. Leier, who wrote a biography called Bakunin: The Creative Passion, has come out with a new pamphlet about Marx and Bakunin. The pamphlet’s title is ‘Divide and Conquer or Divide and Subdivide? How Not to Refight the First International’.
“When Mark Leier joined me from British Columbia, I asked him what the First International was.” (c. 2:23)
DR. MARK LEIER: “The First International was an attempt of a number of left-wing and communist and working class and anarchist political groups to come together to create the organisation, that would help workers across the world build a new kind of solidarity. It was started in 1864. And its first meeting was in London. And its first congress, although they had delegates mostly in Europe, it was helped a year later in Geneva.”
C.S. SOONG: “And what were the roles of Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin within the First International?”
DR. MARK LEIER: “The two organisers and radicals represented different wings and different ideas about how the socialist revolution was going to come about. I think the differences have really been overstated.
“But what we see in the First International is a deep feud between Bakunin and his followers ,and the Proudhon followers that were allied with him with a small group of Marxists in there. (3:37)
“And they used—as anyone, who’s been at a co-op meeting or a left-wing meeting or a  council meeting or a departmental meeting of some kind knows how these things can develop. And they can become very nasty long after everyone has forgotten what the original battles were all about.
“So, one of the things, that happened was the two different sides used some small differences on small matters to become trigger points to engage in a kind of schismatic in-fighting.” (c. 4:04)
C.S. SOONG: “And this in-fighting climaxed with a final split between the two men, between their two factions at the Hague Congress of the First International in 1872. Tell us what happened there.”
DR. MARK LEIER: “Yeah. You know; again, it was very typical of the kinds of things. But, basically, two sides lined up and held various votes on matters. And voting goes back and forth. And, finally, however, Marx and his allies win a couple of crucial votes. And they use that as a way to kick out Bakunin and the Bakuninists.
“And they, then, moved the International’s headquarters to New York City, so virtually nobody could get to the next congress. And the whole thing pretty much wraps up by 1876.
“So, the bitter irony for the left is this attempt to forge a new solidarity, greater unity dissolves into factional fights, into fueding. One side takes its marbles and goes home.
“The anarchists do create another International shortly after that, which continues for some years. And, of course, in the 1880s there was a revival of something called the Second International, which was very much an International of the social democratic party. It does not have the same broad range of left-wing members and ideas in it.” (c. 5:37)
C.S. SOONG: “So, in this pamphlet you have written for PM Press—it’s called ‘Divide and Conquer or Divide and Subdivide? How Not to Refight the International’—you actually go back in time. You look at the upbringings and the years of youth and young adulthood of, both, Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, Michael Bakunin. And it’s very revealing. And it tells me, at least, as one reader of the pamphlet, a lot about who these men were, where they came from, and how, in some ways, similar they were. And that’s part of your point—isn’t it?—that these two men were more similar than one might think based on everything we’ve heard about the antagonism between them. (c. 6:27)
“So, let’s start with Bakunin. You write that Bakunin’s family was part of the Russian nobility. Does that mean, Mark, that his family was rich, was part of the idle rich?”
DR. MARK LEIER: “No, it doesn’t. One of the things, that’s happened in this long feud between anarchists and Marxists between 1864 and the present is that both sides are quick to point out the other as being absolutely unrepresentative of any kind of working class or real left wing movement by saying, in this case, that Bakunin was not a worker, but was an aristocrat. And it is true. But his family was not in the circles of the czar. His estate was pretty far from Moscow and from St. Petersburg. And it did not mean what we tend to think of when we think of aristocrats. You know; we think of Queen Victoria, when we think of the czar. That’s not what life was like.
“The family did control the lives of about two thousand serfs. But that did not confer huge wealth. This was a family, that had more many than peasants—absolutely—but had to pay strict attention to housekeeping, had to pay strict attention to the books in order to keep going. When you look at the letters from Bakunin’s father, it’s filled with—you know; we’re not sure if we’re gonna make it this month. We’re really having a difficult time making ends meet. It did mean that they had the luxury of educating the children. And, so, Michael and his sisters and his brothers got a very good education by tutors, that were brought into the home. They were given the training appropriate for gentlemen and ladies. But it was a training, that was very much instrumental in the sense that you prepare the men to step into careers in the army or as professionals or, perhaps, as people able to manage the estate and to provide the sisters of Michael Bakunin with the graces and skills and personal characteristics, that would allow them to make good marriages. (c. 8:38)
“This is not a family rolling in wealth, although it was certainly enough to send Bakunin off to school where he went to a military academy and took up service in the czar’s army. But he was not one of the idle rich in that sense.” (c. 8:54)
C.S. SOONG: “So, what about Karl Marx’s parents? Obviously, he grew up in Germany, not in Russia. Where did his parents fall within the ranks of German society? And how important was education in Marx’s family, you know, when he was a kid?”
DR. MARK LEIER: “Marx’s family was very similar to Bakunin’s. They were not aristocrats. But his father was a lawyer. He had vineyards, that he ran. So, he had enough wealth to educate the children, enough social status, that Marx’s father would meet with local politicians and had some interest and some political sway, as did Bakunin’s father, but not enough to guarantee careers, not enough to allow them to stop working and simply live off the income produced by workers. That was not their situation at all. (c. 9:49)
“What is interesting to me is that both sides have looked at the parents of Bakunin and of Marx to say: We can dismiss either of them, depending on your side, as being petit bourgeois elements. That cuts both ways. And it is easy for both sides to overestimate the class position of Bakunin and Marx. So, I wanted to pay attention to that to say that they were not unlike rebels, that we see all over the place. If you look at the make up, for example, of the Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], in their very title, they were students. They had some access to education. The Weather Underground, very similar. It’s not true of all organisations, of course. But it’s not a surprise that many people of the left had, at least, some exposure to education. It’s pretty difficult to work all day and, then, go home and become an expert in all the arcane matters of the political economy, that we need to think about on the left.” (c. 10:51)
C.S. SOONG: “Mark Leier is his name. He is a Professor in this History Department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. And he’s author of ‘Divide and Conquer or Divide and Subdivide? How Not to Refight the First International’. And he’s also the author of a biography of Bakunin, Michael Bakunin. I’m C.S. [Soong]. And this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.
“So, Bakunin, like Marx, was the oldest of the male children in his family. And you said that he was sent to a—or he went to a military academy. So, I understand that demands were placed on young Michael. But he would develop into some type of military officer. How did he do in school at that academy?”
DR. MARK LEIER: “Well, he was not a great student. His passion for rebellion surfaced early, though not in episodes of organising resistance among his fellow cadets, but in that kind of passive-aggressive behaviour, that is often how people, who don’t have much power, respond. He was, like many students, slow at turning in his assignments. He didn’t do very well on many of his exams. He was considered to be very bright. And, if only he would apply himself, the theory went, he would do very well at that.
“The point of going to military academy was not just to become a soldier, but enlist in the army, with any luck, to have a good war, if such a thing is possible. And it certainly was for officers; it meant escaping and acquitting yourself with some honour, so that you would be rewarded by the system for playing that important role in it. (c. 12:40)
“So, the idea was not to become a career officer, but to be exposed to the circles of power through your service and in that way, actually, add to the family income. But it didn’t work out.
“He did some military service, but finally just went AWOL. He just left. And his family, later, then, had to scramble and say: Well, he was sick. He wasn’t well. That’s why he’s here. He had something of a breakdown. That wasn’t the case. He was sick to death of the military life, sick to death of the discipline, the pettiness of it. In that sense, we can look to some of his personality, leading to his ideas about anarchism, about freedom, and the lack of discipline imposed imposed from above.”
C.S. SOONG: “And Marx, as I understand, he was expected, or at least his parents hoped that he would engage in the study of law. He went to the University of Bonn in Germany, where he studied law. How did that go?” (c. 13:42)
DR. MARK LEIER: “Not so well. He was more interested in writing poetry and in drinking an in dueling. You know? It’s the 19th century equivalent of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. And so was Bakunin, of course.
“Both of them—lots of their early correspondence, letters back home saying: Trying really hard. Working really hard. I could just do better if you send me more money.”
C.S. SOONG: “[chuckles]”
DR. MARK LEIER: “It didn’t fool anybody. Both fathers respond: We sent you a pile of money. Most people could live for a year or two. You seem to have burned through it all for months. Maybe you should apply yourself more carefully.
“So, these are some of the parallels, at an early age, between the two men. And I stress the parallels because our sense of them, based only on the feuds of the First International, is that they must have been so very different. They must have been very different approaches to political and economic questions. And they really don’t. I think they have much more in common, which is not surprising, given they had similar backgrounds.
“And the similarities in their upbringings, in their educations, and in their early moves, first, into Hegelian philosophy, as a way to make sense of the world, and, then, into working class politics and left-wing politics—so very similar, that I had to stop and say: What exactly was the huge difference between them? Why couldn’t they get along? Why couldn’t they become—you know—the hottest duo in the pamphleteering world, ’til, say, Gilbert and Sullivan?”
C.S. SOONG: “[chuckles]”
DR. MARK LEIER: “Or some other famous team. You know? [chuckles]”
C.S. SOONG: “G.W.F. Hegel, an immensely influential philosopher, who, as you began to suggest, influenced Bakunin and Marx and so many other people of their generation and subsequent generations. Which ideas of Hegel’s most appealed to Marx and to Bakunin?” (c. 15:49)
DR. MARK LEIER: “Or some other famous team. You know? [chuckles]”
C.S. SOONG: “I think, to both of them, what was so appealing about Hegel is he presented for the first time the idea that change, not stasis and stability, was the human condition.
“If you think about the time, in which Hegel is writing, a time when Europe is changing so drastically, when the economies are in the middle of that shift from hundreds of years of feudalism to this new industrial capitalism that changes everywhere.
“That doesn’t sit very well, if you are a king and want to hold [power] with the divine right of kings, that says: You’re family has been on the throne forever and should be on the throne forever. So, Hegel, by suggesting it was change, that marked human history opened up a whole new world.
[snip] (c. 59:59)
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[7 JUL 2017]
[Last modified at 14:59 PDT on 15 JUL 2017]