Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic Alliance

When Mikhail Bakunin could not find a home for his anarchist socialism within the First International that was under Karl Marx’s communist leadership, he founded an underground organization to achieve his political ends. His Social Democratic Alliance proved short-lived, however, as he was expelled from the First International in 1872 and then retired from political life. The ensuing conflict within socialism between anarchism and communism has never been resolved.

Summary of Event

Mikhail Bakunin’s writings influenced many of the young Russian revolutionaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bakunin rejected what he perceived as the dangerous and dehumanizing structure of nineteenth century European society. As a result of this rejection, he engaged in revolutionary theory and practice designed to bring about a better society. He was as critical of other revolutionaries as he was of their mutual enemies, and he produced critical analyses of both the Paris Commune and the First International. In 1868, he founded the Social Democratic Alliance as an underground organization within the First International. It operated in that capacity until 1872, when Bakunin and his fellows were expelled from the First International after losing a power struggle with Karl Marx. Social Democratic Alliance
Social Democratic Alliance
Anarchism;and Social Democratic Alliance[Social Democratic Alliance]
Bakunin, Mikhail
Marx, Karl
[p]Marx, Karl;and Mikhail Bakunin[Bakunin]
[kw]Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic Alliance (1868)
[kw]Founds the Social Democratic Alliance, Bakunin (1868)
[kw]Social Democratic Alliance, Bakunin Founds the (1868)
[kw]Democratic Alliance, Bakunin Founds the Social (1868)
[kw]Alliance, Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic (1868)
Social Democratic Alliance
Social Democratic Alliance
Anarchism;and Social Democratic Alliance[Social Democratic Alliance]
Bakunin, Mikhail
Marx, Karl
[p]Marx, Karl;and Mikhail Bakunin[Bakunin]
[g]Switzerland;1868: Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic Alliance[4120]
[c]Social issues and reform;1868: Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic Alliance[4120]
[c]Government and politics;1868: Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic Alliance[4120]
Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph

Bakunin dedicated his life to the destruction of Europe’s economic, political, and social structure, as well as to the creation of a new socialist system. In 1867, he joined the League of Peace and Freedom. This antiwar organization was created in an attempt to stop what its members believed was the nationalistic carnage of Otto von Bismarck’s wars of German unification. Everyone in Europe knew that Bismarck’s next target would be France and that, if he was successful, a new, highly militaristic German empire would occupy an advantageous geopolitical position in the center of Europe.

Bakunin’s reputation as an activist had preceded him; therefore, the league awarded him the important position of chairman of the committee that was to create a general European peace initiative. He spent the next few months writing one of his most important revolutionary tracts, entitled Federalism, Socialism, and Anti-Theologism (1867). The basic argument of this work was that Europe would continue to experience the brutality of war and the exploitation of the masses for labor as long as the current economic, political, and social system existed. Bakunin stated that the only hope for a peaceful future was the elimination of the nation-state and the nationalistic and patriotic impulses it engendered. Both in his writing and in his speeches, he advocated the use of violence as an acceptable means of destroying the old order.

Most of the members of the League of Peace and Freedom were middle-class intellectuals who believed in social reform and rejected the use of violence. The philosophical incompatibility between these members and Bakunin forced the anarchist and his revolutionary committee to withdraw from the league. In the spring of 1868, Bakunin and his followers traveled to Geneva Geneva , Switzerland, and began to take an active role in a series of worker strikes. In the summer of that same year, they joined the First International and proposed a new operational model for the socialist organization. His plan called for the First International, under the leadership of Karl Marx, to concentrate on the development of revolutionary economic policy using Marx’s Das Kapital
Kapital, Das (Marx)
Marx, Karl
[p]Marx, Karl;Das Kapital[Kapital] (1867, 1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1886, 1907, 1909; better known as Das Kapital) as the model. Bakunin and his committee, meanwhile, would direct the First International’s policy concerning philosophical, political, and religious issues. Together the two groups would direct the course of the international socialist revolution.

With his Machiavellian personality, Marx realized the potential danger that Bakunin and his comrades posed to Marx’s leadership of the First International. Therefore, he quickly rejected Bakunin’s proposal. Shortly thereafter, the General Council of the First International denounced the revolutionary thesis expressed in Bakunin’s Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism.

Bakunin and his followers decided to create an alternative socialist front. A secret central committee that would exercise complete and unquestioned control over all policy decisions would lead this new alliance. The public face of the new organization was to be known as the Social Democratic Alliance. The main goal of the organization was the destruction of all existing nation-states and of the European social order based upon property. The targets of these revolutionaries would be the social, economic, and political infrastructure that supported the nationalistic, exploitive system. Political parties, the court system, government bureaucracies, and banks and other financial institutions had to be completely destroyed. The Social Democratic Alliance was formed in 1868, and as its membership was composed largely of Bakunin’s faction in the First International, the alliance functioned essentially as an underground movement within the First International.

The members of the alliance sought to bring about a new world order based on the decentralized model of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph
[p]Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph[Proudhon, Pierre Joseph];”mutualism”[Mutualism] known as “mutualism.” In this system, a federation of small political units, which would enter into economic and political agreements with one another for their mutual benefit, would replace the nation-state. The Social Democratic Alliance declared itself an atheist organization and called for the abolition of organized religion, which was to be replaced with belief in the laws of science. Similarly, the Western emphasis on the supremacy of divine justice was to be displaced by the concern for human justice.

The major goal of the Social Democratic Alliance was to achieve political, social, and economic equality for all people. This was to be accomplished by ending the right to inheritance and eventually placing all property under the control of the community—not the state, which was to be abolished. Material resources, whether agricultural or industrial, would then be used by all workers for the benefit of the entire society. The new structure would also provide equal education for both genders, so that over time intellectual and technological equality would develop. The alliance also called for the abolition of the existing political order and for the creation of associations of free citizens. Most important, the alliance emphasized that violent action should be directed against the existing structure and not against the people.

The failure of Emperor Napoleon III’s government in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) set off a series of events that culminated in the establishment of the Paris Commune. Paris Commune (1871) It also precipitated a revolutionary period that Bakunin and the Social Democratic Alliance hoped would begin the destruction of the old European order. The capture of Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan Sedan, Battle of (1870) (1870) led to the creation of an interim government that failed to bring the conflict with Prussia to a quick and successful conclusion. The citizens of Paris received little economic or military support; therefore, thousands of them died when the Prussian army, under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, laid siege to the city.

In response to this perceived betrayal, the Parisians took revolutionary action and elected their own municipal government, which was to rule the city as a separate political entity. A public proclamation was issued that listed the reasons for this radical act. Its authors stated that the current conditions in France were the result of seven decades of conquest and expansion, as well as of the failure of the liberal, bourgeois government of Napoleon III. The new municipal leaders adopted a worldview in accord with that of the Social Democratic Alliance: They proclaimed that the time had come to dissolve the nation-state and to replace it with a new social order based upon a general association of independent communes, which would cooperate with one another for the general good. Socialism was to be the guiding philosophy of this new order, and for the first time in modern history, there would be true economic, political, and social equality. The French government sent troops to Paris to put down the insurrection. Thousands of people were killed, and the capital was eventually brought back under the control of the National Assembly.

Bakunin viewed the creation of the Paris Commune Paris Commune (1871) as an opportunity to place before Europe’s radical community the differences between the communists, led by Karl Marx, and the anarchists of the Social Democratic Alliance. He described two major areas in which these two socialist camps differed: their attitudes toward the nation-state and the working classes. Bakunin rejected the communist principle of using the state to achieve the revolutionary goals of a free and equal society. He feared that a communist state would over time become just as repressive as the state-based system the radicals intended to overthrow, and thought it crucial to eliminate the state altogether. Bakunin also believed that he had more confidence in both the revolutionary zeal and the common sense of the working class than did Marx. He feared the Marxist Marxism;and anarchism[Anarchism] concept of a revolutionary elite, believing that once such an elite attained power, it would become just another repressive oligarchy. Marx responded by referring to Bakunin as a “sentimental idealist.”

The situation came to a head at the 1872 congress of the First International in The Hague. Marx engaged in internal politicking and, through maneuvers that had little to do with the substantive difference between the two men, he was able to have Bakunin and his associates expelled from the First International. At the same time, however, Marx transferred the seat of the organization’s general council to New York, removing it so far from the political realities of Europe that some French delegates suggested it might as well be on the moon. The First International was dissolved four years later; Bakunin died the same year.


The Social Democratic Alliance had little direct success, but its founder, Mikhail Bakunin, and his followers stand as the most important voices of anarchism within the history of the international socialist movement. They believed, that is, that the state was an irredeemable blight upon humanity and that for true social justice to be achieved, human sovereign communities would have to be much smaller than nations. Indeed, Bakunin believed such communities should be small enough that each member could be directly answerable to each other member and that larger communities could only be formed as cooperative alliances of small communities. Marx, by contrast, wrote far less about political structures than he did about economic structures. He did not require a communist state to exist after the end of history, but he thought such a state would be useful in achieving history’s end. He certainly had no objection to states as such.

On a theoretical level, this divide between Bakuninian anarchism and Marxist Marxism;and anarchism[Anarchism] communism has represented a significant debate within socialism since the 1860’s. On a practical level, however, Bakunin’s beliefs have proven nearly impossible to test. With the exception of a few, short-lived utopian socialist communities, socialism has only ever been attempted within the framework of the nation-state. The fate of these attempts may indicate that Bakunin was right to distrust the state, but they also establish just how difficult the state is to eliminate completely.

Further Reading

  • McLaughlin, Paul. Mikhail Bakunin: The Philosophical Basis of His Theory of Anarchism. New York: Algora, 2002. Examination of Bakunin’s theory and its underpinnings that challenges Marxist and liberal interpretations of his philosophy.
  • Marks, Steven. How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. Contains an excellent account of Bukunin’s revolutionary activities. Index.
  • Morland, David. Demanding the Impossible? Human Nature and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Anarchism. London: Cassell, 1997. Examines the philosophies of Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and other nineteenth century anarchists, as well as the practical political consequences of those philosophies.
  • Ulam, Adam. Russia’s Failed Revolutionaries: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents. New York: Basic Books, 1981. Excellent account of the history of Russian revolutionary movements. Index.
  • Walicki, Andrzej. A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. The best one-volume history of modern Russian thought. Index.

Russian Realist Movement

Marx and Engels Publish The Communist Manifesto

First International Is Founded

Marx Publishes Das Kapital

Franco-Prussian War

German States Unite Within German Empire

Paris Commune

Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Is Formed

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Mikhail Bakunin; Otto von Bismarck; Karl Marx; Napoleon III; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Social Democratic Alliance
Social Democratic Alliance
Anarchism;and Social Democratic Alliance[Social Democratic Alliance]
Bakunin, Mikhail
Marx, Karl
[p]Marx, Karl;and Mikhail Bakunin[Bakunin]