The International Workingmen’s Association. Wilhelm Eichhoff 1869

9. The Political Activity of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association

Faithful to the programme in which it called on working men to lay the ground for their social emancipation by seizing political power, the General Council did not in the least allow its social activity prevent it from taking political action in propitious circumstances. The most important steps in this field were the following.

1. Even before the Association was founded some of the members of the General Council had worked among their men for the cause of the North American Union. To the extent to which the government and the ruling classes had favoured the Confederates, making the most of the distress caused in England by the blockade of American harbours as a lever and employing all possible means to instigate demonstrations of English workers in favour of the Secessionists [428] – to that same extent labour leaders had foiled these intrigues, informed the government and people of the United States in their addresses of the true feelings of the masses in Britain, and organised mass demonstrations of London workers in favour of the Union. Lincoln’s re-election on November 8, 1864 was an occasion for the General Council to send him an address with its best wishes. At the same time, it called mass meetings in support of the Union. That was why Lincoln, in his message of reply, expressly acknowledged the services of the International Working Men’s Association for the good cause.

2. The General Council also convened public meetings front time to time to keep up the English workers’ sympathy for Poland and to expose Russia’s abuses in Europe.

3. When following the 1866 events in Germany[429] a war between France and Prussia appeared imminent and the government papers in France did their utmost to fan the flames, to fire the national ambitions of the French, and to excite national hatred between France and Germany, the Paris Central Committee of the International Working Men’s Association organised workers’ demonstrations all over France against the war party, sent messages of sympathy to German working men and workers’ unions, and prevented the French workers from falling, into the trap that had been set for them. Time will show how much the anti-chauvinist attitude of the French labouring classes moulded by this vigorous action helped to prevent a war for which there had then been a suitable pretext.

4. The General Council of the International Working Men’s Association took a conspicuous part in the establishment and consolidation of the English Reform League, whose agitation brought about the parliamentary reform of 1867. Members of the General Council are still the most active members of the Executive of the Reform League. The public demonstrations in London that forced the resignation of Mr. Walpole, the Tory, Home Secretary, and the indignation meetings in all the leading cities of the land were, indeed, initiated by them.

5. The murder trial of the Fenians in Manchester was branded by the General Council as a travesty of justice.

[On September 18, 1867, armed Fenians attacked a police van in Manchester and freed two political prisoners (Fenian officers). A police sergeant was killed during the attack. Contrary to English law, which provides for periodical assizes to be held in all counties, the case was put before a special commission, an extraordinary, tribunal, at which the Fenians who are accused of basing taken part in the attack were charged with the murder of the police sergeant. Mr. Blackburn was named judge and contrived to prevail on the jury by all sorts of stratagems that each of the defendants proved to have taken part in the attempt to free the prisoners had thereby, incurred guilt for murder. Thereupon, Mr. Blackburn passed down five convictions and five death sentences. Of the convicted men two were reprieved and three were hanged. On June 2, 1868, the selfsame Mr Blackburn conducted the proceedings against Mr. Eyre, the ex-governor of Jamaica, and prevailed on the Grand Jury, with references to an alleged judgement of Lord Chief Justice Sir A. Cockburn. that Mr. Eve had not exceeded the administrative powers vested in him, thus saving Mr. Eve from being convicted. On June 8, Blackburn was by Lord Chief Justice Sir A. Cockburn in public session at Queen’s Bench[430] of having falsified the facts, and pleaded commission of a legal mistake. – Note by Eichhoff.]

When the executions drew close in November 1867, the General Council sent a petition to the English government, warning it against the bloodshed. Besides, at the height of the panic created in London by the Manchester events, the Council held a public session in support of the rights of Ireland and the Irish. This was the first of the actions in favour of the unfortunate victims of that miscarriage of justice. The Times and the rest of the daily press reported the event. The mood among the London workers was so strongly altered thereby and the plan of the English aristocracy to exploit English national prejudices and split the working class with its strong Irish element into two hostile factions, was so effectively baulked that the organs of the English aristocracy, such as the Saturday Review, began denouncing the International Working Men’s Association as being dangerous to the state.