National Sections of the L5I:

1864: International Working Mens Association

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

The International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), later to be known as the First International, was founded on 28 September 1864 at St Martin’s Hall in London. It lasted only 12 years yet had an enormous influence of the world workers movement. It was the first organisation that tried to guide and lead the struggle for socialism on a world scale.

All future internationals claimed a historic link and debt to the First International and to Karl Marx’s role in the leadership of it. In the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement of the early 21 century the IWMA has been repeatedly referred to as the model to follow by those seeking a movement that can turn ideas into action on an international level.

Often the supposed “broad and loose nature” of the First International, which contained anarchists, Marxists and trade unionists committed to neither current, is contrasted favourably to the Communist International founded by Lenin and the Bolsheviks and constructed on democratic centralist lines. Thus those seeking a “decentralised", multi-tendency organisation, neither totally reformist nor totally revolutionary, have taken as their model the First International.

Wrongly as we shall see. Certainly, the IWMA was founded by an extremely heterogeneous collection of forces. But its 12 years of existence was marked by a series of struggles between these different tendencies. This struggle was waged by the central leadership of the International, the Central or General Council, located in London and guided and led by Karl Marx.

Origins of a workers’ international
The IWMA was the product of a felt need for an international organisation among British, French and Belgian workers. It was greatly aided by the presence of large community of political émigrés in London, resident there since the defeat of the 1848-50 revolutionary upheavals on the continent. Without their political, literary and linguistic skills it could never have existed for so long.

This fusion of real mass workers’ organisations, important European trade unions, with socialist and radical democratic activists was the essential basis for its launching and life. A powerful stimulus to international co-operation lay in the rising militancy of British workers themselves.

Permanent unions of skilled workers had mushroomed in the 1850s and early 1860s in Britain, particularly in engineering and in the building trades. Between 1859 and 1862 a series of lockouts and strikes wracked the building industry in London. A new group of trade union leaders had come to the fore, some willing to use more militant methods.

These leaders also wanted to work towards an international organisation to build links and overcome division with European workers, in a situation where foreign workers were often used to break strikes. These leaders such as Robert Applegarth of the carpenters’ union, George Odger of the Shoemakers’ union, William Allan of the engineering union, set up the “Junta” (a Spanish word for council) and worked closely with the London Trades Council, which had been formed in 1860 and whose secretary was George Odger.

The Junta also wanted to build a campaign for reform of voting rights (workers still had no right to vote) and saw the value in having international links in this struggle. In Britain, radical and working class political groups had long championed international causes such as the independence of Poland, Italy and Ireland.

The workers movement supported the North against the South in the American civil war (1861-64). English cotton workers declared their support for the anti-slavery stand of President Lincoln despite the North’s naval blockade on raw cotton exports which caused mass unemployment and hunger in Lancashire mill towns. Another Polish uprising against the Tsar took place in 1863 and rallied enormous sympathy and support in both Paris and London.

The International founded
Growing relationships between European trade union leaders led to the decision to found the International in 1864. British union leaders, European refugees in London and a delegation of French socialists attended the founding meeting. The French were largely followers of Pierre Joseph Proudhon - the founder of anarchism - and trade unionists with a sprinkling of French Blanquists.

Also present were English Owenites, Chartists, Christian Socialists, Irish and Polish nationalists, Italian followers of Mazzini and German communists. It met under the chairmanship of Edward Spencer Beesly, an English Positivist historian and professor at London University. Marx himself did not speak at the meeting but was as he wrote to Frederick Engels in Manchester, a “silent figure on the platform.” The meeting set up a provisional committee to draw up a programmatic declaration and a set of rules of the new international.

Here was where Marx really intervened. The drafts submitted by various individuals were mutually contradictory and filled with purely democratic rhetoric. Marx promising to take the best ideas offered wrote a totally different document, but did it so skillfully that most of the members of the provisional committee were very pleased with it. Marx commented in a letter to Engels: “It was very difficult to keep the thing in a form which made our views acceptable at the present stage of the labour movement. Time is needed before the movement, now revived, will permit the old vigour of language."

This did not mean that Marx opportunistically dumped the principles of the communist movement enshrined in the Manifesto of 1848. Indeed it is remarkable how much of the fundamentals of what he and Engels had written then were in fact incorporated. Starting from an apparent description of the progress of the workers movement since the 1840s and its recovery from the defeats of 1848-51, every thing described in the Inaugural Address and the Rules of the International is there to illustrate a basic tenet of class struggle socialism.

Thus when Marx describes the success of the legal movement for the Ten Hour Day in Britain he calls it a struggle “between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class.” He goes on to say that it was “the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class."

He praises the successes of the co-operative movement, particularly where it had organised production without capitalists. That workers can do this proves that “like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. However he argues “co-operative labour, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries."

To save the industrious masses, co-operative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means.” From this follows an inescapable conclusion: “To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes.” In a period where the United Sates had just proclaimed the “emancipation” of the slaves Marx used this term to describe the freedom from exploitation of the working class, the wage slaves. In the short rules, which Marx also drafted, he stated the basic principle of class independence, of the rule of the working class in order to abolish all class rule and indeed classes themselves.

"That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves, that 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 the abolition of all class rule.” The Inaugural Address, and the Provisional Rules which accompanied it, were now produced in tens of thousands of copies, printed in trade union newspapers and translated into many languages. They were to form the basis of the first programmes of the new workers parties that were founded right around the world over the next three decades.

Growth and activity of the IWMA
In Britain, the bricklayers affiliated to the IWMA in February 1865 and in the following month the Bootmakers joined. The Trade Union Congress in 1866 urged its members to join the IWMA. By its Geneva congress of in 1866 there were just over 25,000 British members of the IWMA. At the Lausanne congress a year later, 28 unions had joined included the Amalgamated Society of Engineers with 33,000 members and the United Excavators with 28,000 members.

In France, the membership consisted of two main groups: trade unionists, who were recovering from a period of reaction in which unions had been banned; and the Proudhonists. The trade unionists, such as Eugene Varlin, in the main adopted a syndicalist outlook. By 1867-8 they had won some reforms, including some favourable but limited legalisation, from the government and were looking forward to a period of rapid growth. The followers of Proudhon held to a socialism that expressed the outlook of the self-employed skilled artisans and small-scale peasant producers - then still a large social force in France.

He tended to see, interest-bearing capital, banking, as the core of capital rather than industrial capital. He was against state ownership of production. He was against strikes and regarded trade unions as useless or even harmful. He was also against women being drawn into production. Against the forces of developing capitalism, Proudhon counterposed artisans, with their small workshops coming together to form co-operatives, drawing interest free credit from “people’s banks” to fight off the competition of the huge modern capitalist enterprises. This principle, called “mutualism", would eventually lead he believed to the ousting of the capitalists.

The first three congresses of the international, Geneva 1866, Lausanne 1867 and Brussels 1868 saw a struggle over these ideas between the Proudhonists and General Council, increasingly called, if a little inaccurately, “the Marxists". A succession of congress resolutions either rejected the Proudhonists’ favourite solutions such as free credit banks and co-operatives or put them into a practical and auxiliary context.

At Geneva in 1866, a series of resolutions drafted by Marx, on co-operatives, trade unions, a campaign to limit the working day to eight hours and on protection for women’s and children’s’ labour, were passed against the Proudhonists’ opposition. The right of women to work and the need for universal free and compulsory education was asserted. These were supplemented at Basel and Lausanne by resolutions that supported the collectivisation of major industries. At Brussels, it was stressed that co-operatives would only play a positive role where they arose out of a struggle with the capitalists and not from patronage by the bosses, the state or the churches. Recent struggles around co-operatives in Argentina have confirmed this basic position of the First International.

Marx also led London-based General Council to fight for a recognition of the role of trade unions as organs of working class defence and the use of strikes. By the Basel congress of 1869, the IWMA was at its zenith. Marx’s position and his policies had won massive support from socialists and trade unions. Positions developed in the Communist Manifesto, but which only a tiny handful had read hitherto, were now spread to hundreds of thousands of workers, forming policies for a new and rapidly growing working class movement, which was taking action throughout Europe, and in the Americas too. However, within these victories and the growing influence of the IWMA was growing the seeds of disunity and fragmentation.

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune
In the War of 1870-1, France was defeated by Prussia, which then created a unified Germany. The French Emperor Napoleon III went into exile and the new right-wing government of Thiers, far more terrified by the armed workers of Paris than of the Prussians, tried to seize the cannon of the National Guard and disarm the workers. But the central committee of the National Guard quickly alerted the workers and easily foiled Thier’s manoeuvre.

This led to the outbreak of civil war between bourgeois, royalist and clerical forces centred on the Versailles National Assembly, and working class Paris. On 26 March the central committee of the National Guard held elections to the Paris municipality or Commune. The new Paris Commune consisted of 96 delegates, mostly workers, comprising adherents of the insurrectionary communist Auguste Blanqui, the petty bourgeois republicans (Jacobins) and an important minority who were members of the IWMA. Delegates to the Commune were paid a maximum wage and were recallable at will by their electors. Tragically the Commune made a serious tactical error when it failed to take the military offensive against Versailles. It even refused to seize the Bank of France with its huge gold reserves.

The Commune soon found itself besieged and attacked by the Versailles army. Nevertheless, in the two months of its existence it carried out many progressive reforms, such as separation of church and state, the abolition of the death penalty, reforms in working conditions, and above all the formation of a citizens’ army. Around the world, the IWMA threw itself into agitation in support of the Commune, holding meetings and distributing papers and pamphlets in its support. For Marx and Engels there were three great lessons from the Commune outlined in Marx’s famous Address The Civil War in France.

This was actually adopted by the General Council of the IWMA. Marx concluded that it was no longer sufficient to take hold of the existing bureaucratic and military state machine and reform it. The Commune had shown that, for all its limitations, it was the embryo of a new type of state, one which would abolish the standing army and arm the working class and its allies; instead of only voting every four or five years all delegates would be instantly recallable, and these delegates would be paid only an average worker’s wage.

The second main lesson was the need for a party of the working class. The lack of an organisation capable of leading the working class seriously hampered the Commune’s ability to fight the republican government. Over 30,000 Communards were killed and many more exiled or imprisoned. Never was the workers International more needed. It was vital to organise workers parties, on a worldwide basis and to combat the reactionary witch-hunt against the left that was now sweeping Europe.

STRUGGLE WITH THE ANARCHISTS
At was at this very point, when its resources were needed to fight its external enemies, that Bakunin and his anarchist followers set out to paralyse the international in a devastating internal struggle. Michael Bakunin, born in Russia around 1814 first met Marx in 1844. He had been active in the revolutions of 1848 in Germany.

In 1868, he set up the Alliance for Social Democracy, which gained considerable strength in Switzerland, Spain and Italy. The organisation had applied to join the IWMA en bloc. Marx and the General Council rejected this application and urged its members, including Bakunin to join the existing national sections of the International in the different countries. Bakunin then apparently dissolved the Alliance. In fact, he preserved it as a secret faction operating within the IWMA. Given the Bakuninists were opposed to parties and politics in principle it is no surprise they chose to launch their onslaught over the lessons of the Commune.

A number of factors meant that this would be the last battle for Marx and the General Council. The defeat of the commune ushered in a deeply reactionary period in Europe. The very base that Marx had been able to rely upon - the British trade unions - was losing interest in the International and the very idea of independent working class politics. The growing trade union movement had won an extension of the franchise in 1867 from the Tories, who were seeking to outmanoeuvre the Liberals. This still did not give the vote to the majority of the working class men - the unskilled workers - let alone women. But it allowed the leaders of the skilled workers unions to enter parliament with the support of Gladstone’s Liberal Party.

Indeed they became a sort of Labour appendage of it - later known as Lib-Labs. In 1871, the Liberal government in its turn brought in legislation recognising trade unions as friendly societies and giving them legal protection.

There was a faction among the trade unionists on the General Council that saw alliance with the Liberals as the way for further advancement. Also the return by Marx to the bold language of the Communist Manifesto in The Civil War In France and the IWMA’s support for the Commune, terrified the rightward moving TU leaders. George Odger and Benjamin Lucraft, members of the General Council, resigned in 1871 over it. Odger joined the Liberals. Even Applegarth and Mottershead - long supporters of Marx were moving away from the IWMA.

The reaction and aftermath in the IWMA
In Switzerland, among the artisan Jura watchmakers, the Bakuninists had been organising secretly ever since their admittance to the international. The London IWMA congress (1871) forbade membership of any secret organisation or body that had as its aim goals outside of those of the international. It demanded the amalgamation of the Jura federation and the older pro-General Council Geneva group. The fight, however, was not just over Bakunin’s secret factionalism. The London congress passed a resolution on political action that was a head on challenge to the Bakuninists. The anarchists were opposed to both the political action of the working class, which they believed was at best a diversion and at worst a subordination to the ruling class because it sometimes meant fighting for reforms, and the idea of a political party, which they argued would replicate the centralised authority of the capitalists.

Instead, they rejected organising the working class in a political party in favour of building small conspiratorial groups that would carry out violent actions to hasten the end of capitalism. Throughout 1872, the fight continued between the two groups. Marx recognised that the IWMA was being destroyed by the factionalism. However, he never underplayed the importance of this fight for it was a struggle between turning the International into a sect and the perspective of building a genuine mass working class movement.

The Hague Congress
The stage was set for the last real congress of the IWMA in The Hague in September 1872. The first three days were spent arguing over credentials, which finally produced about 40 delegates supporting Marx and the General Council and 24 for Bakunin.

The congress backed the powers of the General Council to suspend or expel sections and individuals who refused to carry out the programme and policies of the international. Bakunin’s expulsion marked the end of his political career and he retired from politics and died in 1875. Another resolution on the necessity for working class parties was debated and passed. The last debate was the location of the General Council. Marx and Engels put forward the proposal to move it to New York. The influence of the IWMA had been growing there both among political refugees but also among US-born workers.

By the early 1870s, the IWMA had 30 sections and more than 5,000 members in the US. Therefore, there was a valid reason to move, escape repression in Europe and to join up with the growing movement. However, another reason was to remove the General Council from Europe and the hands of the anarchists and the Blanquists. In a strange unprincipled alliance the anarchists could now expect support from the Liberal leaning British trade union leaders.

After all both were opposed to independent working class politics - the former because they were opposed to mass political struggle, the latter because they wanted to get into parliament as Liberals. The proposal to move the headquarters to New York was carried by 30 to 14 and the General Council moved and Marx’s ally, Adolph Sorge, became its general secretary. However the International did not flourish in the United States and its formal final congress took place in Philadelphia in 1876. In reality the reaction to the defeat of the Commune in Europe, the emergence of the British skilled workers unions as a privileged aristocracy of labour, the rebirth of anarchist sectarianism, all dealt death blows to the IWMA.

Marx and Engels’ believed that the International had - temporarily - outlived its usefulness. In a letter to Sorge in 1873 Marx wrote: “...It will be a very good thing that the formal organisation of the International shall, for the time being, be allowed to retire into the background...The course of events and the inevitable development and interlacement of things will spontaneously ensure the uprising of the international in an improved form."

Lessons of the First International
The IWMA introduced the politics of Marxism in a popular form to the growing working class movement. It restated and elaborated the role of the working class in overthrowing capitalism and defeating the ruling class. It had outlined the role of trade unions not only in organising the working class but also as providing a means by which workers could fight their exploitation by creating political parties.

It developed positions on political action, including taking part in elections separate from and independent of all bourgeois parties. It set the fight for reforms and campaigns like the eight-hour day in the context of the struggle for “the complete emancipation of the working class". It supported the first revolutionary seizure by the working class of political power - the Paris Commune.

It learned and developed from the Parisian workers’ actions the position on the necessity to smash of the bourgeois state, replacing it with the workers state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which was opposed by the various anarchists, who believed in insurrection by small conspiratorial groups. It had popularised key parts of the Communist Manifesto and developed its programme of demands, positions that are still with us today.

The demand of a progressive income tax, socialisation and planned production not simply localised co-operation; of the need for a workers’ militia to combat the bosses’ army; support for the national struggles such as freedom for Poland and Ireland. It had led campaigns, especially in Britain, over questions such as the eight-hour working day, social insurance and housing. The International by its practice and its struggle had laid the basis for the theory of a democratic centralist international with an international programme, discipline and goal.

For a decade, Marx, Engels and their supporters were able to lead the emerging struggles of the workers and the trade unions, ally revolutionaries with sincere reformists who were moving leftwards and combat the misleading ideas of the anarchists and utopians socialists.

They were able to lay the foundations of theory and practice of a scientific class struggle socialism in the working class. It was to lay the basis for new Marxist Internationals. Writing to Sorge in the US in 1874, Engels commented:

"For 10 years, the International Workingman’s Association dominated European history in one of its aspects (the aspect that looks to its future). It can be proud of its achievements. But, in the old form, its life is over... I think the next international, after Marx’s writings have exercised their influenced for a few years more, will be directly communist, and will be definitely devoted to the diffusion of our principles."