A hundred and fifty years ago, on 28 September 1864, the working-class movement took a huge step forward with the founding of the International Working Men’s Association.
A meeting at the St Martin’s Hall in London brought together radical and socialist delegates from around Europe, to set up the organisation which would become known as “The First International”.
In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ended their Communist Manifesto with the famous and ringing declaration: “Proletarians of all countries, Unite!” But in many ways, their theoretical elaboration of an international proletarian movement was far in advance of the actual state of working-class organisation of the 1840s. Though many workers fought bravely in the bourgeois revolutions of 1848-49, the working-class was a small minority, and its leaders were often hegemonised by petit bourgeois democrats and republicans. Marx’s Communist League was a tiny “vanguard” group.
By the 1860s modern industry was making headway in western Europe, and in many regions the industrial working-class began to outstrip in numbers the pre-industrial artisans and other urban plebeians. A proletarian movement really began to take shape in 1864 with the formation of the First International. As the cloud of post-1848 political reaction began to clear, Marx himself returned to large scale political activity after a twelve year hiatus.
The initiative for the St Martin’s meeting came from the working-class movements in England and France, including the London Trades Council, which had been formed in 1860. Largely representative of a upper stratum of skilled craft workers, it was not socialist and tended to follow bourgeois radicals, especially in the campaign to extend the franchise. The leading figures included George Odger, a shoemaker who would serve as the president of the International until 1867, and William Cremer, a carpenter who later became a Liberal MP.
But international solidarity was becoming a basic imperative. Strikes for a nine-hour day in the building trade had seen bosses importing foreign workers as strike-breakers. The Trades Council realised the need to mobilise solidarity in other European countries in order to prevent strike-breaking.
The upturn in economic struggle intersected with important political developments which were also focusing the minds of English workers on international issues. There was widespread enthusiasm in the radical and working-class movements for the Italian Risorgimento, and when Giuseppe Garibaldi arrived in England in 1864, he was rapturously received by the London Working Men’s Garibaldi Committee. When the British government forced Garibaldi to leave the country, a demonstration of London workers ended in clashes with the police.
Even more important was the American Civil War (1861-5). The war had led to a “cotton famine” which hit production in the north of England — initially much of the workers’ press supported the slave-owning South. However, Manchester’s workers looked past short-term economic considerations.
During the Northern blockade of the Confederacy, which left many Lancashire workers starving, workers gathered on 31 December 1862 at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. They sent a letter to Lincoln expressing their “hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity — chattel slavery — during your presidency, will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity.”
After the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, an enthusiastic campaign of pro-Northern mass meetings played a role in preventing active British involvement in supporting the Southern side.
After the Polish uprising of 1863 against the Tsar, skilled workers organised rallies in support of Polish national independence.
Polish independence had long been a touchstone of the French radical movement, and in July 1863, Henri Tolain, a follower of the anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, travelled to London with four other delegates to speak at a meeting in support of Poland organised by the London Trades Council. Odger raised the issue of European workers being imported as strike-breakers, and proposed “regular and systematic communication between the industrious classes of all countries” as a solution. And so it was at St Martin’s Hall on 28 September 1864 it was agreed to form an international organisation.
The International reflected the uneven ideological development of the workers’ movement across Europe. The French representatives elected in September 1864, for example, were republican democrats.
The Italian democrats were followers of Giuseppe Mazzini, and both delegations were hostile to the idea of a politically independent workers’ movement. And as David Fernbach wrote: “The English trade-unionists, though politicised, were indifferent to socialism and hostile to revolution, and the French Proudhonists, who professed a form of socialism, were hostile not only to revolution but to all forms of politics.”
Due to its reliance on the English male and skilled working-class, and the vigorously anti-feminist French Proudhonists, the International was, Fernbach wrote, “essentially male in its outlook”. However a women’s section of the International was founded in Paris in 1871 and a section was founded in New York by the feminist refomer Victoria Woodhull, though it remained largely middle-class in character. Marx, though disparaging of Woodhull, responded to the Paris developments by moving a resolution for the formation of working women’s branches.
Marx joined the International soon after its formation, and saw his role as providing ideological clarity, while at the same time treading carefully in order to build up the organisation. He wrote to Engels that: “It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old boldness of speech. It will be necessary to be fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [strong in deed, gentle in style].”
After deftly forcing the resignation of the explicitly non-working-class republicans, Marx set about crafting the Inaugural Address and Provisional Rules for the General Council of the International. It can be read as an attempt to make the basic ideas of class-struggle socialism palpable to the English trade unionists, at the same time as trying to win over elements influenced by Proudhon in France and Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany.
In the Address, Marx made the important observation about the Ten Hours Act passed in England in 1846 that it was “the victory of a principle...the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.” He attacked the anti-political trends within the workers’ movement, arguing that the economic struggle by itself is insufficient and that “to conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.”
The Provisional Rules begin with a fundamental principle, which distinguished Marx’s thought from the utopian schemes or conspiratorial methods of his predecessors — “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” The Rules also say “the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and that abolition of all class rule”, before calling for “the immediate combination of all the still disconnected movements” of the working-class.
At the London Conference in September 1865 and Congress in Geneva the following year, Marx took the Proudhonist arguments head-on. As against the latter’s anti-political doctrine that producers’ co-operatives funded by a “people’s bank” could transform capitalism and displace the state — without class struggle on either the economic or political fronts — Marx emphasised the struggles to win reforms such as the eight-hour day, and the role of trade unions in fighting for “general laws, enforced by the power of the state.” At the same time, he stressed that trade unions must transcend their narrow craft outlook and “consider themselves and act as the champions and representatives of the whole working-class.”
In 1867 a wave of strikes swept across western Europe. The International intervened successfully in Belgium, France and Switzerland, building strong sections and dealing a blow against the Proudhonist ideology which saw strikes as a “forcible” interference into economic relations. A section of left-wing Proudhonists around Eugene Varlin, spurred by the repression of the French section by the Bonapartist regime, took a further step towards a recognising the need for political action.
By the Brussels Congress of 1868, Marx’s ideas were in the ascendant, and for the first time the International “went on record demanding the public ownership of land, including mines, railways, forests, canals, roads and telegraphs.” As Fernbach wrote: “The international had thus developed a long way from its original conception as a workers’ defence society.”
The passage of the 1867 Reform Act in Britain would lead many of the International’s English supporters to dissolve into the camp of radicalism and the Liberal Party. Though the Reform League was organised by many of the same trade unionists who supported the International, and its meeting in Hyde Park on 6 May 1867 was the largest workers’ demonstration since Chartism, it was never an independent workers’ organisation. Its demand for “manhood suffrage” was qualified to mean “registered and residential”, excluding casual workers and the unemployed; it was compromised by endorsing the bourgeois radical demand for household suffrage.
After the armed Fenian uprising against the British in February-March 1867, Marx and Engels took an ever greater interest in the Irish Question. Frustrated at the unwillingness of most English trade unionists to support the Irish struggle for national independence and the amnesty movement for condemned Fenians, Marx broke new ground in stating the oppression of the Irish held back the British workers’ movement as a whole. He wrote to German socialist Kugelmann:
“The English people will be kept in tether by the ruling classes, because they will have to establish a common front with them against Ireland. Every one of its movements in England itself remains paralysed by the quarrel with the Irish, who form a very considerable section of the working class here.”
The First International achieved most fame and notoriety though to its support for the 1871 Paris Commune. Following France’s defeat by and humiliating surrender to Bismarck’s Prussia in 1870, the National Guard resisted government attempts to disarm it and seized power in Paris. A Commune was set up in March 1871, taking its name from the elected local council in Paris established in 1792 during the French Revolution.
In The Civil War in France, Marx wrote that the Commune “was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating classes, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”
Marx had argued previously against an isolated uprising in Paris, and the International’s section in France had been severely weakened by state persecution. Once the uprising began, the main political forces in the Commune were the Jacobins and the followers of Louis Auguste Blanqui, a brave and principled revolutionary whose views were nevertheless a continuation of the most radical wings of the first French Revolution — the Jacobin-Communists — and whose methods were those of the conspiratorial secret society. There was however a left-wing of revolutionaries connected to the First International. Varlin was the most prominent of these, and was killed defending the Commune.
After the Commune was crushed, with 14,000 workers massacred and a further 10,000 imprisoned or deported, the International was wrongly blamed for its instigation. This was mainly on account of Marx’s impassioned vindication of this “glorious harbinger of a new society” in The Civil War in France.
In March 1872 membership of the International became a criminal offence. Action was proposed against the organisation by Bismarck, and it was discussed at international conferences by the Pope and the Emperors of Austria-Hungary and Germany.
The International eventually perished under the weight of reaction in the 1870s. Another important factor in its demise, however, was the internal crisis caused by the involvement of Mikhail Bakunin.
Bakunin had been involved in the German Revolution in 1848, and was imprisoned in Russia between 1849 and 1863. He later escaped to Italy, and his followers were active not among the workers’ movement but the young middle-class Italian intelligentsia disaffected with the anti-democratic nature of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. Initially part of the bourgeois-democratic League of Peace and Freedom, Bakunin split and formed its more left-wing elements into the Alliance of Socialist Democracy. He wrote to the General Council to apply for affiliation to the International.
Bakunin’s politics started not from the working-class and its struggle against capital (and, necessarily, the capitalist state as a part of that struggle) but from opposition to the state as such. He came to the working-class when he realised that it was the only class in modern society with an interest in smashing state power.
Bakunin, however, vigorously rejected the idea that the working-class should form itself into a political party, or carry out any activity aimed at gaining reforms from the existing state.
Moreover, unlike Marx, who saw in the Commune the form of democratic political institution appropriate to the socialist organisation of society, Bakunin denied that the working-class should set up any political authority of its own after the revolution.
He led a campaign against Marx behind the banner of rejecting the General Council’s “authoritarianism.” On this basis he was able to form an opportunist bloc with the English trade unionists who had their own reasons for resenting the input of the General Council into their affairs.
Though rejecting the idea of a political party, Bakunin advocated the construction of a secret leadership (“invisible pilots”), who would carry out a full-frontal insurrectionist attack on the state. His Alliance was merely a front aimed at infiltrating the International, and when it was refused affiliation, he reduced it to its “central section” based in Geneva and re-applied.
In 1870, Bakunin won over a section of the Federal Council of French Switzerland and split, attracting workers who had joined the International’s sections in Italy and Spain. Though both sides were not above using questionable methods, the subsequent battle between the followers of Marx and those of Bakunin was for Marx a question of political principle: that of independent working-class political action.
Though Marx was able to win a formal majority for his position, and Bakunin was expelled for organising his secret society, the conflict led to the end of the International.
According to Fernbach: “Marx’s majority at The Hague [Conference July 1872] was composed chiefly of Germans, the exiled French Blanquists and a part of the English delegates, as well as his personal supporters on the General Council. Against Marx were ranged forces that counted for at least as much in real terms: the Spanish, the Belgians, the French-Swiss, and a part of the English.” Though Italy was Bakunin’s main base, they refused to attend the same conference as the “authoritarians”.
In order to salvage the International from falling into the hands of Bakunin, Engels successfully proposed, against Bakuninist and Blanquist opposition, to move the General Council to New York, where it would lie in the control of Marx’s German-American supporters. It was finally wound up at the Philadelphia Congress of 1876 and its successor would be the Second International founded in 1889.
The Bakuninists formed their own International which lasted until 1877.
Despite its relatively short life, the First International was a path-breaking attempt to unite the working-class movement at its various stages of development across the European continent.
In 1947, the American Trotskyist Albert Glotzer summed up its importance in the following terms:
“The First International ‘laid the foundation of the international struggle of the proletariat for Socialism.’ It disseminated the scientific principles of socialism developed by Marx and Engels and destroyed for all time the power and influence of utopianism, ‘true’ socialism and anarcho-communism, and gave the coming movement of the proletariat its scientific basis.
“The First International of Marx and Engels disappeared with the defeat of the Paris Commune and the beginning of a new epoch in the expansion of world capitalism. But it had sown the seed of the future.”