T. A. Jackson

Book Review

The Struggle for a Workers’ International

Source: Labour Monthly, May 1928.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription: Adam Buick
HTML Mark-up: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

History of the First International
G. M. Stekloff
Martin Lawrence
12s. 6d. net.

It is not too much to say that Stekloff’s book should be read and re-read by every worker in the British Labour Movement—for had the history of the International Working Men’s Association been assimilated properly we might have been saved from many follies.

First of all it was the means of effecting a transition from the then traditional bourgeois insurrectionary utopianism to a positive proletarian political struggle. It did not do this completely nor as a conscious whole. Yet from the work, the struggles, and the organisation of the International can be dated the beginnings of the conscious working-class political struggle in all the West European countries.

Secondly, it effected this transition negatively as well as positively. It carried over into its body from the first the elements whose incompatibility its experience was to demonstrate.

It is a commonplace of all the text-books of Socialism that the International was wrecked by the doctrinal dissensions between the followers of Marx and those of Bakunin. What is commonly unobserved is that this fight itself was an expression of the inevitable and inescapable antagonism between the inherited bourgeois ideological forms under which the proletariat commenced its historical adventures and the inner revolutionary urge of its practical proletarian experience.

Thirdly, the International in, through, and by means of its conflicts and ultimate disintegration demonstrated that the historical mission of the proletarian struggle is not merely to aggregate together all and every individual discontented with bourgeois society. It demonstrated that in the very act of uniting to struggle against the effects of bourgeois rule the proletariat achieves a doubly revolutionary transformation; it forces the bourgeoisie itself to transform its organisation, its institutions, and its slogans until it has exhausted the possibility of further transformation; and in the struggle that compels all these transformations the proletariat is itself transformed out of all recognition; is, in fact, converted from a mere aggregation into an entirely new and independently conscious entity.

That Marx should clash with Bakunin was inevitable; those who have failed to see so much cannot have penetrated to the only too obvious petty-bourgeois point of view from which all Bakunism proceeded. What was not so obvious, but would have given a clue to any investigator with insight, was the superficially curious alliance which gave the International its stability—an alliance which, when severed, virtually dissolved the International—that between Karl Marx, the Revolutionary Communist, and the British Trade Union Junta (Alien, Applegarth, Odger, &c.), who had not even broken with bourgeois-Radicalism.

It was this curious united front that gave the International its life; it was the severance of this union that brought its death; and it speaks volumes for the practical genius of Marx that he was able to maintain the union for long enough to ensure that on its decomposition its fragments should be able to commence an independent national existence.

The explanation is, of course, the simple fact that in the International Marx tested out his main theories and proved them correct. For the Junta as individuals he had little use; he early predicted that Odger, for instance, would desert to the bourgeoisie. Behind the Junta he saw the rising force of what was then called the “Model” Trade Unionism, and it was that force and all it signified to which Marx pinned his faith.

It indicated a vast spontaneous growth of the proletariat responding directly to a vast development of capitalism, which could not fail ultimately to transform the whole earth.

Marx in a word saw what was coming—too accurately perhaps not to ante-date its culmination. He was content, therefore, to keep on the crest of the advancing wave and await with patience the coming of the foreseen.

On the surface it seemed in 1872 that the “International” was a complete and colossal failure. Official British Trades Unionism had turned its back upon it; its French sections had disappeared in the wreck and disaster of the Commune, and the obloquies heaped upon its grave; its German sections had been all but suppressed for their anti-war protests; while in the Latin countries Michael Bakunin was able to make a show of complete victory over Marxian “timidity.” But by 1889, when the post-Commune reaction had subsided, a new International had constituted itself by the coming together of the national Socialist and Labour Parties which had grown from the germs implanted by the International Working Men’s Association. When that International assembled it paid homage not to the names of Allen, Applegarth and Odger, and still less of Bakunin; it paid it to that of Karl Marx. And when in turn this Second International had collapsed into ruin before another world reaction, its successor, the Third (Communist) International, at once announced itself as the heir and successor of the First.

On any view, a history of the First International has been long needed. Postgate’s work, though original and therefore valuable, is but a sketch; Jaeckh’s work, at best confused and one-sided, is only rarely to be met with. Almost any really full history would have been sure of a welcome; but a history such as this—full, detailed, documented, judicious, balanced, and illuminative, well translated and admirably printed—is a boon for which it is impossible to be too grateful.

Stekloff’s work is not merely fuller and more documented than its predecessors, it continues the story later than any. It follows the fortunes of the Bakunist pseudo-International right to the end, and gives the details of the Congress which can be taken as the starting point from which grew the Second International—that at Chur, in Switzerland, in 1881.

The “Address,” Preamble and Provisional Rules of the International Working Men’s Association (all drafted by Marx) are given in full as an appendix.

To urge the study of such a volume should be needless. It should be sufficient to say that practically every problem of organisation and tactics that confronts the international working class to-day appeared in germ in the experience of the First International.

Stekloff, summarising in his concluding chapter, points out that the First International brought to light the three main tendencies which have since marked the international working-class movement: those of (1) revolutionary Communism, (2) moderate (and ultimately class-collaborationist) Socialism, and (3) Anarchism.

The latter, being no more than the logical completion of bourgeois individualism, is a phenomenon that recurs with every crisis that detaches a section of the lower-bourgeoisie from their hold on the means of production. As such it is essentially reactionary, under its insurrectionary surface, and therefore sterile. It represents the longing for the lost past, just as the second represents a yearning for the present—if only it can be stripped of its objectionable incidentals. The first (revolutionary Communism, in fact, however variously it has been named) alone presses forward to the future along the true line of development.

The First International, perforce, attempted to unite in a common struggle all three tendencies; their common repulsions drove it asunder. The Second attempted to shed the Anarchists and unite the remainder; it did but ripen their antagonisms to the pitch of cleavage, and the three tendencies exist distinct, separate, and not to be reconciled.

Yet, since, for all the years between, the whole proletariat has still not been drawn into the conscious struggle, the tendencies meet, intermingle, and at times seem to coalesce in the struggle to actualise the unresolved potentiality of the not yet class-conscious masses. That is the clue to the modern history of the proletarian struggle; and Messrs. Martin Lawrence are to be congratulated on this timely addition to the means available for comprehending it.

T. A. J.