Sixty Years in the Social-Democratic Movement


In February, 1867, the club celebrated the 27th anniversary of its foundation, at which Marx and myself were the official speakers.

I leave out my speech as not being above the level of an ordinary opening speech.

Marx spoke on “Labour and Capital.” He explained how workmen produced capital, how they were kept in slavery by the produce of their own work, and how capital is continually employed to fasten the chains of the workers. That the so-called free workman lives under the belief that he is a free agent, but that he is really in the power of the capitalist, and has to sell his labour power to him for a miserable wage, in order to obtain the necessaries of life. That the free workman is placed materially on a lower level than the slave and serf. That the working class was really not obliged to abolish private property, as this was more and more abolished every day under the capitalistic régime. What was to be abolished at the end was only middle-class property, founded only on deceit.

Concerning the situation in Germany, Marx remarked that the German proletariat was as yet the first to victoriously carry out the social fundamental cure. Firstly, the Germans had mostly freed themselves from all religious nonsense; secondly, they had not to undergo the different lengthy periods of social development, from the first to the last, as the workmen of other countries, especially those of England.

Marx had always a high opinion of the German proletariat, the development of which he closely observed.

Early in September, 1867, the second Congress of the International took place at Lausanne, which I attended as a delegate. There were present 64 delegates, among them Dr. Büchner (Darmstadt), the author of “Force and Matter.” Eugène Dupont, a French member of the General Council, was elected chairman; Eccarius and J. Ph. Becker vice-presidents; and Guillaume, Dr. Büchner, and Karl Bürkli secretaries.

The Congress then received the reports of the General Council, and those of the different Continental committees.

Of the full agenda three questions especially occupied the Congress:

(1) Shall the working classes confine themselves only to the economical struggle, or shall they also agitate for political reforms?

(2) In what way can the workmen use their own savings, which now they have to leave at the disposal of the capitalists, for their own emancipation?

(3) What is the attitude of the International Congress towards the Peace Congress meeting at Geneva?

On question (1) it was unanimously declared: (a) That the social emancipation of the working classes is not to be separated from their political deliverance; (b) That political freedom is absolutely indispensable.

In reply to question (2), I was called upon to speak. I recommended to the workmen to found co-operative societies out of their savings. The outlines of my speech I summed up in two resolutions, which were accepted by the Congress.

On question (3) the following resolution was received with applause:—

“Whereas the pressure of war weighs on no class of society more heavily than on the working class, which is not only deprived of its livelihood, but also has to shed its blood;

“Whereas nearly as heavily as war itself the pressure of so-called armed peace weighs down the workman by consuming the best force of the people in unproductive and destructive work;

“Finally, in consideration that as a radical cure of this disease a reform of the present social conditions, based on the exploitation of one part of society by the other, is an indispensable condition:

“The Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association declares its entire and determined agreement with the League of Peace, constituted on September 7th, at Geneva, and to its endeavours in the interest of the preservation of peace, and demands not only the cessation of war, but also the abolition of standing armies, and a general and free confederation of nations, being based on the principles of reciprocity and justice, provided, however, that the emancipation of the working classes from their oppressed position, and from their social neglect is attained, and the struggle of classes is put an end to by the abolition of the present class contrasts.”

At the finish the land question was to be discussed. The French delegates, all Proudhonists, were against collectivism of landed property, whereas the German, English and Belgian delegates were in favour of it.

About this time the movement of the Irish people had become a threatening one. The men of action, the Fenians, frightened the ruling classes in England by their plots, and everywhere the hatred against the unfortunate Irish was stirred up. The International at once took the side of the oppressed and hated. Towards the end of October, 1867, we arranged a large meeting to express our sympathy for Ireland.

On the part of the German working men, H. Jung and I spoke. Also on other occasions we have assisted the demands of the Irish for their liberty with all our power. But we could not prevent, in 1867, the execution of the three Fenians who were condemned to death and executed at Manchester.

Soon after the foundation of the International, Marx drew our attention to the English Trade Unions. In order to win these for our aims, the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association delegated some members, who were to form a connection with the different trade unions. Very often this task fell to me, and I devoted most of my time to it. This wearisome task unfortunately taught me very soon that the leaders of the trade unions worked against our aims. The masses sympathised with the International, but the secretaries of the trade unions, with few exceptions, refused to act according to their desires. The trade union leaders did not mind the formal resolutions in favour of the International, but when they were asked to act, they withdrew. However, the exertions of the International Workingmen’s Association were not quite without success, for it is chiefly due to them that the trade unions entered the struggle for electoral reform, and began to take part in politics.

In February, 1868, the “Communistische Arbeiterbildungsverein” in London, celebrated its 28th anniversary. To me fell again the task of delivering the opening speech. After me, George Eccarius spoke.

He said: “Twenty years have passed since a special committee, sitting with closed doors, was occupied with laying down our ‘Manifesto of Communists.’ This committee had private connections in all parts of Europe. The most important documents were often transmitted by people without their guessing what these documents contained. To-day all this has disappeared; we here discuss our interests openly and freely and undisturbed. The last event that attracted my attention was the circular which the Austrian Minister issued to the officials of Austria, in which he admonishes the latter no longer to consider themselves as the masters, but as the servants of the people. This is a great progress. In 1829 or 1830, seven workmen were severely punished because they discussed their social interests, and to-day they are going to establish a democratic-communistic labour union at Vienna. We learn from that that we have not worked in vain. By-and-bye Governments will be obliged to listen to our demands. If all that we agitated for had been given to us, I am convinced that many things we might otherwise have secured would not have been attained. The obstinacy of our opponents makes us attain our aims the more surely and the more thoroughly.”

In September, 1868, the International held its third Congress at Brussels. I represented there the German workmen of London. There were present 73 delegates from all the civilised states of Europe. The Congress this time attracted the attention of the leading papers of England and of the Continent. The London “Times” devoted special leaders to its transactions, and occupied itself in a very serious way with the activity and the aims of the International.

On September 6th, the Congress was opened. After the committee of management had constituted itself, one of the London delegates read the annual report. This was written by Marx, as were all the publications of the International, and was as follows:—

“The year 1867-68 marks an epoch in the International Workingmen’s Association. After a period of quiet progress, its influence increased to such an extent that it provoked the bitter denunciations of the governing classes and of the governments. It entered the phase of struggle.

“The French Government, of course, took the lead in the reaction against the working classes. Already in the previous year we had to denounce some of its hostile manœuvres—suppression of letters, confiscation of our rules, interception of the documents of the Geneva Congress at the French border. The surrender of the latter was long demanded in Paris and they were at last only restored to us by the official pressure of Lord Stanley, the English Foreign Minister.

“In this year, however, the old Empire completely threw off the mask. It openly tried to destroy the International Workingmen’s Association by the aid of its police and courts of justice. The December dynasty owes its existence to the class struggle, the grandest manifestation of which was the June insurrection of 1848. It played in turn the rôle of the saviour of the middle-classes and of the proletariat.

“As soon as the increasing power of the International clearly showed itself at the strikes of Amiens, Roubaix, Paris, Geneva, etc., the self-appointed patron of Labour was restricted to the alternative—to control our society or to suppress it. In the beginning he did not do much. A manifesto that the French delegates had read at the Geneva Congress (1866), and published the following year at Brussels, had been confiscated at the French frontier. Upon an inquiry by our Paris committee for the reasons of this violent proceeding, the Minister, Rouher, invited a member of the Committee to a personal interview.

“When interviewed, he first demanded the modification and alteration of some passages of the manifesto. When answered in the negative, he said: ‘We could yet come to an understanding if you would only insert some words of thanks to the Emperor, who has done so much for the working classes.’ But this gentle hint of Rouher’s did not meet with the expected compliance. From this moment the December régime watched for any pretext in order to destroy the association by force. Its anger increased in consequence of the anti-Chauvinist agitation of our French members after the Austro-Prussian War. Soon after, when the Fenian panic had reached its height in England, the General Council addressed a petition to the British Government, in which the impending execution of the three Manchester martyrs was called a judicial murder. At the same time we held meetings in London for defending the rights of Ireland. Always anxiously striving for England’s favour, the French Government now considered the circumstances ripe for a stroke against the International Workingmen’s Association on both sides of the Channel. During the night its police entered the houses of our committee-members, ransacked their private letters, and with much ado announced in the English press that the centre of the Fenian conspiracy had at last been discovered. One of its principal organs was the International Workingmen’s Association. The judicial inquiry, however, did not find the shadow of a proof, notwithstanding their best endeavours.

“In Belgium our society boasted of great progress. The mine-owners in the district of Charleroi drove their miners to revolt by continued vexations, and they sent armed forces against the unarmed miners. In the midst of the panic caused by this dastardly act, the Belgian branch of the International took the cause of the colliers in hand. It revealed, through the press, and in public meetings, the miserable economic position of the workmen; it helped the families of the killed and wounded men, and procured legal assistance for the prisoners. . . . . After the events at Charleroi our success in Belgium was assured.

“In Italy the Association was weakened by the reaction following the slaughter of Mentana. Some of the consequences were restrictions of the right of forming associations and holding meetings.

“In Prussia the International could not legally exist, because the law prevented any connection of Prussian labour associations with foreign societies. Moreover, the Prussian Government repeated the Napoleonic policy on a petty scale. But notwithstanding all these obstacles, small branches spread about the whole of Germany, grouped themselves round our committee at Geneva.

“In Austria the Labour movement assumed a more and more marked character.

“In England the decomposition of the old political parties and the preparation for the next electioneering fight occupied our best forces, and retarded our propaganda. Nevertheless, we opened an active correspondence with the provincial trade unions. Some of them declared their adhesion. The General Council maintained a continuous connection with the National Labour Union of the United States. The latent power of the North American working class manifested itself in the form of the legal introduction of a normal working day, and in the passing of a general eight hours law in eight or nine States of the Union. Nevertheless, the American working class succumbed, especially in New York, after a desperate struggle against capital, which tried to prevent the execution of the eight hours law with all the means in its power. This fact proves that even under the most favourable political circumstances each success of the working class depends on the strength of their organisation, which trains and concentrates their forces.

“It was necessity which created the International. It was not the hot-house plant of a sect, or the outcome of a theory; it was a natural growth of the proletarian movement, which in its turn originated in the normal and irresistible tendencies of modern society.

“Deeply impressed by the greatness of its task, the International did not allow itself to be frightened or misled. Its fate was henceforth inseparably linked with the historical progress of that class which bears in its womb the new birth of mankind.”

Then there was to be discussed the question, “How should the working class behave in case of a war breaking out between two or more great Powers.”

This question was answered by the following unanimously accepted resolution:—

“Justice must regulate all relations between states and nations, as well as between citizens; that war always establishes the power of the stronger; that war is only a means to bring the people under the yoke of the privileged class, or of the governments representing them; that it strengthens despotism and strangles liberty; that it perpetuates ignorance and want by bringing misery and perdition over families, and spreads demoralisation wherever the armies concentrate themselves; that the blood and fortunes of the people were only used to conserve the cruel instincts of the primitive state of man; that in a community based on work and production, power should enter the service of liberty and of equal right for everybody; that it must be only a guarantee of freedom and right, but not an instrument of suppression; that in the present condition of Europe the governments do not represent the just rights of Labour; that war has for its chief cause the want of an economical balance, and, therefore, can be removed only by social reform; that there is also another cause in the arbitrary power arising from centralisation and despotism; that the people can diminish the number of wars by opposing those who declare and wage war; that this right particularly belongs to the working classes, exclusively subject to military service, and that they only can establish it; that there exists, for this purpose, a legal, effective, and at once practicable means, as society could not exist if production stops for a time; that it is, therefore, sufficient, in order to render impossible the enterprises of a personal and despotic régime, that the working classes should strike: the Congress raises, therefore, with all its energy, a protest against war, it requests all the sections of the association, as well as all labour societies and associations, of whatever kind they may be, to work in their respective countries, with all their energy, to prevent war between peoples, which really is only a civil war, a fight between brothers and comrades. The Congress particularly recommends to workmen to cease all work in the event of a war breaking out in their countries. Reckoning on the spirit of solidarity among the workmen of all countries, the Congress hopes that their help will not be wanting in this strike of the people.”

The Congress further discussed strikes as a social weapon. The resolution on this question ran:—

“The Congress declares that a strike is not the means of completely emancipating the workmen, but that it is necessary under the present economic conditions; that it is necessary to submit the strike to certain rules, to be laid down according to the conditions of the organisation, opportunity, and legislation; that it is necessary before all, to establish trade unions where none exist, to provide them with powers of resistance, and funds, and to federate the local trade unions, enabling them to assist each other in the case of strikes; that in such places committees are to be appointed, formed of delegates of the different trade unions, who will have to decide on the opportuneness of impending strikes; it is, however, necessary that sufficient liberty of action should be allowed to the different sections for the working of such committees according to the particular customs, usages, and prevailing laws.”

A lively discussion was called forth by the question, “What influence does machinery exercise on the economic position of the workman.”

Tolain (Paris); Pollart, De Paepe (Brussels); Eccarius, and myself joined in this discussion. The “Times,” “Daily News,” “Manchester Examiner,” and other papers almost literally reproduced these speeches. The discussions were summarised in the following resolution:—

“That machines have proved to be one of the most powerful means of oppression and exploitation in the hands of the capitalists; that the development of machinery will create the necessary means for replacing the wage-system by a truly social system of production; this Congress, therefore, declares: (1) That only by co-operative associations and organisation of the mutual credit system* can workmen succeed in getting hold of the machines; (2) That under present conditions working men, strengthened by organisations, should have a voice in the introduction of new machines, in order that this introduction should take place only under certain guarantees or compensations for the workmen.”

* Proudhonistic influence —F. L.

For the completion of propaganda among working men, the Congress recommended all sections to organise public lectures on scientific and technical subjects, to remove, as much as possible, the deficiency of education from which working men are suffering.

An excited debate arose on the Labour Credit institutions. The Proudhonists always spoke of exchange-banks, etc., and at last proposed the following resolution:—

“That interest-taking is a permanent source of injustice and inequality, and as co-operative societies retaining it transfer thereby the principle of egotism, which is the chief disease of present society, from individuality to collectivity, the Congress, therefore, expresses itself in favour of founding exchange-banks, which, issuing capital at cost price, have for their object the democratisation and equalisation of credit to simplify the intercourse between producers and consumers.”

The German and English delegates were against this resolution.

Moses Hess, who was present at the Congress as a delegate, said, among other things, that Proudhonism had already expired before 1848. Marx had proved this doctrine to be wrong in his book, “Misère de la Philosophie” (The Poverty of Philosophy).

At last the question of landed property was to be discussed. In this debate it again appeared that the Frenchmen did not take a proper social position, whereas the Germans, the English and the Belgians advocated the collectivism of landed property. Tolain and Laquet (from Paris) spoke against it, and De Paepe, Eccarius and myself spoke for it. On this question the following resolution was carried:—

“1 (Concerning mines).—That as the great means of Labour are connected with the soil, they require the land to a considerable extent; that they become a dangerous monopoly in the hands of the capitalists; that these means necessarily need machines and collective work; that machines and the collective power of individuals are to-day solely and exclusively in the service of the capitalists; that, therefore, every industry where these two economical forces are indispensable should be used by groups of working men, working for their own account, the Congress declares: (a) That quarries, coal and mineral mines, as well as railways, are not to be handed over to capitalists, but to workmen’s societies, by means of a double treaty, so that the State demands, firstly, a rational exploitation of the concession, services of the members of these societies, if possible at cost price, and inspection into the management whereby these companies shall be prevented from degenerating into monopolies; secondly, the mutual rights of the members of the society shall be settled.

“2 (Concerning agricultural land).—That the economical development tends to large farming; that the needs of agricultural produce, the employment of agricultural knowledge, the introduction of machines, require a cultivation on a great scale and the co-operation of labour; that landed property and agriculture are to be treated after the same principle as mines; that the soil is the primitive source of all riches, and is not the production of any man: the Congress is of opinion that landed property is to be conceded to labour associations for collective cultivation, and with the same guarantees as pointed out with regard to the mines.

“3 (Concerning canals, highways, railways and telegraphs).—That these means of traffic require a uniform management and control; that the means of communication must remain the property of the community.

“4 (Concerning forests).—That the leasing of forests to private individuals leads to their destruction; that this destruction endangers the regulation and conservatism of the sources of water, diminishes the productiveness of the soil, and is a danger to the general health of the community; that forests are to be the common property of society.”

This resolution was accepted with 30 votes against 4; 15 delegates abstained.

At this time a great misfortune befell me. On Christmas day, 1868, my wife died, with whom I had lived ten years in the happiest union. The “National Reformer,” of January 3rd, 1869, devoted to her the following obituary:—

“We regret the death of Mrs. Lessner, wife of Mr. Lessner, a member of the International Workingmen’s Association. The deceased lady was brought up in the faith of the Church of England, but arriving at the age of womanhood, was induced to investigate the basis of her creed, with the usual result: she gradually relinquished all ideas of supernaturalism, and looked upon human duty as consisting in improving this life, instead of preparing for a doubtful hereafter. She took the greatest interest in all freethought matters, subscribing to the “National Reformer” from its commencement, and attending regularly at Cleveland Hall (which was at that time the headquarters of the Freethought movement in London).

“For some years her health had been precarious; symptoms of consumption developed, which increased in intensity. Feeling her end approaching, she faced the rider of the pale horse with a calm eye, and mind at ease, and refusing the offer of priestly consolation, sank into her last dreamless slumber on Christmas morning, at the early age of 29, to the intense grief of her husband. While sorrowing for our departed sister in the cause, let us remember the uncertainty of life, and work for good, ere that time arrives when the hand drops nerveless, and the busy brain is at rest for ever, since to our lost sister we may say, in the words of the old Romans, ‘Nos te ordine, quo natura permiserat, cuncti sequemur.’ (We shall all follow thee, in whatever order nature may permit.)—Free Lance.


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