Issue 233 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review

Red letter days

London, 28 September 1864

Founding conference of the First international

'We, labourers of all countries, must unite to oppose an impassable barrier to a deadly system which would divide humanity into two classes--an ignorant, common people, and plethoric and big bellied mandarins. Let us save ourselves through solidarity!' These were the closing words of a meeting held in St Martin's Hall, London, on 28 September 1864. It was the founding conference of the International Working Men's Association, subsequently known as the First International.

Since the French Revolution of 1789 workers had become aware of common interests crossing national boundaries. In 1791 Sheffield workers had riotously celebrated the victory, of the French sans culottes army, over the armies of the Austrian Empire in: the Battle of Valmy. However, their tongues were muted by universal repression during the Napoleonic Wars, but revived in the great popular national struggles of Greece, Belgium and Poland in the early years of the new century. From the late 1830s workers' militancy and revolutionary struggle reawakened and the first attempts to form popular international organisations took place. The League of the Just, the Communist League and the Fraternal Democrats were forged in the period of the great revolutionary struggles of 1848.

Again these brave attempts at internationalism were smashed by the repressive actions of counter-revolution. Many leading figures were imprisoned, demoralised or exiled. The decade which followed was dismal everywhere. A new Napoleonic Empire emerged in France, Austrian and German princes reasserted their rule, and in Britain the smug Victorian bourgeoisie celebrated its triumph with the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851.

One of the exiles of 1848 was Karl Marx, who spent much of that decade in the British Museum wrestling with political economy. By the middle of the next, one result was Das Kapital. Another was his participation in the founding of the International. Over the years which followed, Marx was to conduct a tireless fight to clarify the aims and objectives of that organisation despite ill health and domestic tragedy.

The International was founded in days of hope. Great struggles were opening up for independence and unity in Poland and Italy. The French movement was growing in confidence as the Bonapartist regime was crumbling in scandal. The Belgian labour movement was organising through mass strikes. In the US the Civil War had ended with the liberation of the slaves. In Britain the Lancashire cotton workers, acting in a tremendous spirit of international generosity, plumped firmly for the North and against the cotton tycoons and their English supporters in Manchester and London who wished to break Abraham Lincoln's blockade of the Southern ports. Earlier, in 1859-60, building workers had fought a great battle creating and strengthening their fledgling union organisations. Yet the biggest triumph was the mass workers' mobilisation for parliamentary reform. This was the context which brought together delegates from six countries to a packed hall in September 1864.

There were many issues fought out in the International. There was the need to insist that, whilst supporting national struggles for independence, workers had their own special interests. This meant war with the followers of the Italian nationalist demagogue Mazzini. Most adherents of the international could comply with that principle. Much more serious was influence of utopianism upon the French movement. The followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued for a system of small proprietors and co-operative ventures devoid of class struggle as the road to a just society. They were fanatically anti-state, refusing to put any demands upon the capitalist state for reform. Marx, in collaboration with reformist trade unionists, fought and defeated the utopian tendency. His trade union allies, however, were rapidly solidifying into bureaucrats whose attachment to socialism was, to say the least, weak.

However, the most debilitating battle was with the anarchists, led by Mikhail Bakunin. A man of immense courage and proven struggle against the Russian autocracy, his arrival in the west in 1867 and involvement with the international was a disaster. He had no grasp of the problems of proletarians and their organisations in industrial capitalist societies, but the tenacity and power to wreak havoc. An organised secret cabal which could seize power by force was his sole strategy. The deed was paramount. The liberation of the working class, as the act of the working class' was of no interest. The war between Bakunin and Marx went on. It was effectively terminated by the Paris Commune and its aftermath. It was a fabulous event for Marx, indicating the future path to workers' control of society. Its defeat in brutal reaction and the demoralisation which followed reduced the International to a warring sect. Marx used his authority at the 1872 conference at The Hague to virtually toss it across the Atlantic, beyond the clutches of the anarchists, where he saw signs of growth in the workers' movement. Unfortunately it quickly disintegrated in the beer cellars of antagonistic European émigré groups.

Nevertheless, the International was a critical moment in the development of world socialism. It had some good moments in mobilising solidarity actions. Its internal debates were of historic importance and its very presence pointed the way forward. There have been three further internationals, each failing for different reasons. Yet the truth is that some day a new international organisation will have to be created in the struggle to bring about the declaration of the Communist Manifesto of 1848: 'Workers of all countries, unite!'
John Charlton


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