Karl Korsch 1924

The Marxism of the First International

Written: by Karl Korsch in 1924;
Source: Marxism and Philosophy. Karl Korsch, translated and with an Introduction by Fred Halliday, Monthly Review Press, 1970;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden for marxists.org, 2004.

On 28 September 1864 it was decided at an international meeting of workers in London to found the International Workingmen’s Association. On 25 July 1867, Karl Marx wrote the preface to the first edition of the first volume of Capital. Within one single period of history, in the 1860s, both aspects of Marxism attained their full realization: the new autonomous science of the working class attained its developed theoretical form in literature at the same time as the new autonomous movement of the proletariat achieved its practical form in history. The ‘silent figure’ on the platform of St Martin’s Hall who ‘presented’ the German worker Eccarius to the founding conference of the International Workingmen’s Association, also presented the ‘real forces’ of the incipient world proletarian movement with their theoretical expression which he had evolved after enormous intellectual labour.

The epoch-making event that initiated this new stage in the theory and practice of the working class movement was the American Civil War of 1861-5. After the failure of the revolutions of 1848, all the European countries had undergone a period of unparalleled economic prosperity which had sent the forces of reaction into a frenzied spate of counter-revolutionary orgies. The great economic crisis of 1857 had put an end to this, and (as Marx expressed it) had shown that the apparent victories of reaction in this period had been merely a means of ‘providing, the ideal conditions of 1848 with the material conditions of 1857’. The great London building strike from 21 July 1859 to 6 February 1860, together with the big spring strike of 1861 which came soon afterwards, had pulled even the least class-conscious unions into the struggle of the ‘political economy of the working class’ against the ‘political economy of the bourgeoisie’. At the same time the employers threatened to bring in cheap continental labour during these struggles and there were in fact already traces in some English industries of increased competition from German workers. This was a practical lesson to English workers of the need to have a unified international trade union movement. The European working class was also strongly influenced by the domestic and foreign policies of Bonapartist social imperialism in France, by the liberation movement in Italy and by the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861. But it was the great world-historical event of a four-year Civil War between, the Northern American states and the slave-owning states of the South which was able to produce the great upsurge in proletarian class consciousness out of which there emerged the European proletariat’s first international class organization. It was the Civil War which combined the enormous political importance of ‘a noble struggle for the liberation of an enslaved race’ with a deep economic effect on the working and living conditions of the English and French working classes. It is only superficially that the Polish rising of 1863 can be seen as the occasion for the founding of the International in 1864. The European proletariat were far more influenced by the practical economic fact of the American Civil War, as a result of which English imports of cotton fell from 1140.6 million lbs in 1860 to 309.3 million lbs in 1862. This meant that by October 1862, 60.3 per cent of the spindles and 5 8 per cent of the looms in the English textile centres were idle, and the English and French textile workers were undergoing mass unemployment and illness from hunger and misery. During this period the English working class, under the heavy pressure of these economic developments, also waged an energetic and heroic resistance against the English government’s inclination to intervene in the Civil War on the side of the slave-owning states. These practical contradictions within their own situation and actions taught them the fundamentals of the ‘political economy of the working class’ which found its organizational and theoretical expression in the founding of the International and in Marx’s Capital. Marx, in the introduction to the first volume of Capital, pointed out the decisive importance of the American Civil War in unshackling a really international revolutionary proletarian movement that would sweep the whole of Europe along with it. ‘Let us not deceive ourselves about this’ he warns those readers of his work on the European continent who might be inclined to see in Capital only the history and theory of capitalist relations of production in one particular country: ‘As in the eighteenth century, the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so in the nineteenth century, the American Civil War has sounded it for the European working class. In England the progress of social disintegration is palpable. When it has reached a certain point, it must have an effect on the continent.’

The American Civil War of 1861-5 as the ‘tocsin’ for the European working class! In this expression we can see the revived revolutionary enthusiasm of the 1860s. At last, after fifteen years of demoralization and lack of participation by the masses, the revival of the working class was visible all at once in England, France, Germany and Italy. This was already clear from the Inaugural Address of 1864, which Marx wrote as the Programme of the new international class organization and which was unanimously adopted with great enthusiasm by the General Committee of the International. It culminates in the passage stating that the seizure of political power is the major task which the working class now faces and is the aim of the newly founded international class organization of the European proletariat. This thesis is concretely developed in the demand that the working class in the different countries must also prove its fraternal cooperation by preventing foreign policy from ‘playing on national prejudices and squandering the peoples’ goods and blood in predatory wars’, as did Palmerston’s policy towards the American Civil War and the Polish Rising, and the policies of Bonapartist France and of Czarist Russia. For this purpose the working class should ‘master the mysteries of international politics, watch the diplomatic actions of their governments and counter them, if necessary, by all the means at their disposal.'

It remained for the ‘Marxists’ of the Second International, for Messrs Kautsky, Hilferding and Co., to falsify these explicit formulations of the revolutionary practice and theory of the Marxism of the First International, and to argue that Karl Marx, the revolutionary of 1848, had matured to manhood in the subsequent fifty years, and had been ‘converted’ to a political ‘theory of relativity’ based on reforms ‘within the capitalist state’. On this basis they contrasted the ‘perfected and developed’ Marxism of the 1860s which was ‘also applicable to non-revolutionary periods’ to the ‘primitive Marxism of their early works, which Marx and Engels produced in the period from their twenties to the revolution of 1848 and its aftermath in 1849-50, (Kautsky). Hilferding adds the discovery that the present prime minister of England, MacDonald, has ‘been carrying out’ the foreign policy demanded by the Inaugural Address for the international working class in his ‘honourable peace policy’ aimed at ‘uniting the major nations’.

These social democratic agents of capitalism’s war and post-war policies have disgracefully abandoned the true theory and practice of Karl Marx and of the First International. Confronted with this, the Third International has before it the task laid down by Lenin of fulfilling Marx’s legacy and translating it into life. It has undertaken this historical task in a situation which, after the Russian Revolution, reproduces all the political and economic effects that an event like the American Civil War of 1861-5 had on the European working class. These are now being felt by the exploited classes and oppressed people of Europe, America, Asia and the whole world on a far broader scale and with unparalleled intensity. The tocsin of world revolution is sounding from Soviet Russia.