Marx and Engels developed their original synthesis of socialism as working class self-liberation through combining elements of English political economy, Germany philosophy and French socialism. Marx and Engels inherited the common sense demand for a federal united Europe from other socialist writings of their time – for example Henri Saint-Simon and Augustin Thierry’s De la reorganisation de la societe europeenne (1814). Writing in 1890 to the French Workers’ Party, Engels remarked that Saint-Simon was “the first to predict that the alliance of the three great Western nations – France, England and Germany – is the prime international requisite for the political and social emancipation of the whole of Europe”. Engels stated his hope to see “this alliance – the kernel of the European alliance which will put an end for all time to the wars between governments and races — achieved by the proletarians of the three nations” (MECW 27: 87-88).
A careful reading of Marx and Engels’ writings over six decades reveals a pan-European perspective, of European workers fighting for Europe-wide democracy and for European revolution. They regarded the English revolution of 1648 and the French revolution of 1789 as fundamentally “revolutions of a European type… [which] proclaimed the political order of the new European society” (MECW 8: 161). It is no accident that the spectre in the Communist Manifesto (1848) was haunting Europe, or that their paper the Neue Rheinische Zeitung defined itself as “the organ not only of German, but of European democracy” (MECW 8: 509). Their writings at the high point of revolution across Europe in 1848-49 are peppered with references to a “European federative republic”, “European fraternal union of peoples” and similar formulations. Where they criticised bourgeois democrats who used these slogans it was not to dispute the goal, but rather for failing to start with the actual state of things and for spouting mere phrases (MECW 8: 363-4).
Marx and Engels’ stance on international economic relations was also formulated at the time. Their most detailed treatment of the question was Marx’s ‘Speech on the Question of Free Trade’, delivered in Brussels in January 1848. The speech is imbued with scepticism about the “free trade sophisms” of the manufacturing class. Marx railed against the “sudden philanthropy of the factory owners”, who argued that free trade benefited the working class. He argued that the bosses’ opposition to a shorter working day revealed their hypocrisy.
Marx believed that “all this cant will not be able to make cheap bread attractive to the workers”. He argued that free trade was about the British bourgeoisie dominating the world market: “England would form one huge factory town, with the whole of the rest of Europe for its agricultural districts.” He argued that by unleashing competition, free trade was likely to drive down workers’ wages. To the question, “what is free trade under the present condition of society?” Marx’s answer was: “It is the freedom which capital has to crush the worker.”
Marx argued: “When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action. So long as you let the relation of wage labour to capital exist, it does not matter how favourable the conditions under which the exchange of commodities takes place, there will always be a class which will exploit and a class which will be exploited”. Yet Marx concluded his speech with the following declaration: “But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade” (MECW 6: 464-65).
When Marx came out in favour of free trade, he did not have in mind an actual vote, in a referendum or similar, for free-trade government measures. He was “voting” metaphorically, asserting that between the two bad capitalist alternatives, free trade and protection, free trade at least had the merit of sharpening the contradictions of capitalism.
Marx and Engels did not put the demand for European unity at the forefront of their propaganda after the 1848 revolutions for two reasons. First, European unity was part of the accepted common wisdom of radicals, a goal so ubiquitous among those on the left, from democrats to anarchists that Marxists did not need to make a special argument for it. Second and more concretely, the national question was not settled in large parts of Europe and would not be resolved in many states during their lifetimes. Engels summed it up very well in 1892 when he wrote in a preface to the Polish edition of the Communist Manifesto: “A sincere international collaboration of the European nations is possible only if each of these nations is fully autonomous in its own house” (MECW 27: 274). He pointed out that while some peoples had managed to secure their own independent states, others such as the Poles had not.
The formation of the International Working Men's Association, better known as the First International, was practical living proof of the efficacy of a pan-European perspective. In the ‘Provisional Rules of the Association’ (1864), Marx stated that the founding congress “will have to proclaim before Europe the common aspirations of the working classes” (MECW 20: 15). The following year Marx would clarify that the motto of the International was “a free Europe based upon a free and independent Poland” (MECW 20: 97).
The idea of European unity was widely shared by European socialists. The ADAV, the German social democratic party founded by Lassalle proclaimed in its Leipzig Programme (1866) that its goal was a united German state as the beginning of solidarity between European states. Hafner, a delegate from the Swiss section of the IWMA spoke to the League of Peace and Freedom conference held in Geneva in September 1867, calling for “the emancipation of the working class and its liberation from the power and influence of capital, as well as the formation of a confederation of free states across all of Europe” (Marcelo Musto, Workers Unite: The International 150 Years Later, 2014: 233).
It is well known that Marx opposed an official IWMA delegation to the League of Peace and Freedom conference in 1867, although he sanctioned the participation of IWMA members as individuals. He was understandably opposed to the merger of the nascent workers’ international with a bourgeois, “peace-at-any-price organisation”. He regarded the First International itself as a peace congress, because “the union of the working classes of the different countries must ultimately make international wars impossible”. He argued that if the promoters of the Geneva peace congress really understood the question at issue they ought to have joined the IWMA (MECW 20: 426).
The League of Peace and Freedom, backed by Victor Hugo, Mazzini and other European democrats, would prove to be a durable organisation, continuing until after the First World War. It would publish a bilingual newspaper, Les États-Unis d'Europe/Vereinigten Staaten Europas [United States of Europe] until 1919. At the Brussels Congress of the IWMA in 1868, Marx convinced the First International to oppose official affiliation to the League, but to support united action of the working class with all the progressive anti-war forces.
This was bound up with his attitude toward political opponents such as Amand Goegg, Karl Grün and the editor of the League’s paper, Gustav Vogt. Marx was also animated by Bakunin, who tried to use the League as a vehicle to gain influence within the First International. But Marx never opposed the democratic demand for a united Europe or joint action with democrats who seriously fought for it. Engels even suggested to Marx that he should announce his book Das Capital in the League’s paper after Goegg promised to insert their articles (MECW 42: 541).
The demand for a united Europe remained within the Marxist lexicon. In the first edition of his seminal book, Women and Socialism (1879), August Bebel, leader of the mass German social democratic party (SPD) called for a “United Confederation of Peoples of Europe”. When Karl Kautsky came to write his commentary on the SPD’s Erfurt Programme (1891), he observed the growing threat of Europe dividing into two military camps. He argued that there were only “two ways out of this intolerable state of things: either a gigantic war that shall destroy some of the existing European states, or the union of them all in a federation” (The Class Struggle, 1910: 104).
The SPD’s theoretical journal Die Neue Zeit, edited by Kautsky, carried numerous articles that included the demand for a united Europe. Max Beer, the journal’s correspondent living in England described the problems of imperialism and concluded the solution was “a dream no less grandiose than the ‘United States of Europe’ (Day and Gaido, Discovering Imperialism, 2012: 108). In 1900 Parvus, one of the most articulate writers on the left of the SPD, summed up the assessment:
“Though hindered, the development of the world market has made impressive progress. And its result at the moment is the displacement of competent individual industrial states by that of whole continents. In order to gain a place in this formidable race, free trade is a sine qua non for Western Europe. But insignificant as the European capital is in relation to the working class, it is the same also in its trading policies. It is divided, and it chases after the interests of splinter-groups and of the moment. Hence the political strike. Europe is suffering, more than ever, from small-statesmanship. Although the states have become bigger the historical yardstick has also grown, only much more so. This is the curse of political tradition. Free trade will do away with it, it will create great groups of nations, it will lead to a United States of Europe.” (Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, 1965: 41-42)
The last word on these questions from the nineteen century deservedly belongs to Engels. He published a pamphlet, ‘On the Question of Free Trade’ (1888), which included Marx’s speech from the 1840s, with an introduction analysing developments over the last 40 years. It is clear from the introduction that his basic attitude remained the same as the one he shared with Marx. He wrote: “Free trade is the normal condition of modern capitalistic production. Only under free trade can the immense productive powers of steam, of electricity, of machinery, be fully developed; and the quicker the pace of this development, the sooner and the more fully will be realised its inevitable results: society splits up into two classes, capitalists here, wage-labourers there… Free trade is the natural, the normal atmosphere for this historical evolution, the economic medium in which the conditions for the inevitable social revolution will be the soonest created —for this reason, and for this alone, did Marx declare in favour of free trade” (MECW 26: 523-24).
In the early 1890s, Engels began to warn that the biggest threat to the growing socialist movement across Europe was “a war, such as the world has not yet seen, in which 10 to 15 million armed combatants will stand face to face” (MECW 27: 46). He argued that to attain the goal of the liberation of the European working class, “an alliance between France, England and Germany [was] a primary condition for peace in Europe” (MECW 27: 537).
Engels was asked about the threats to peace in an interview with the Daily Chronicle (June 1893). He reiterated the longstanding support for the rights of nations to self-determination, such as those living in Alsace-Lorraine under German rule. The interviewer then said: “Then you look for a ‘United States of Europe’ at no distant date?” Engels replied: “Certainly. Everything is making in that direction. Our ideas are spreading in every European country... The workers of the world are fast learning to unite” (MECW 27: 552).
This was the theoretical bequest Engels and Marx left their followers after half a century elaborating working class socialism. It was a legacy of consistent democracy and internationalism, a precious inheritance that most were eager to continue.