The International Workingmen's Association, 1871

Political action and the working class

Speech by Marx the London Conference of the International, September, 1871

These are notes taken (in French) from two speeches Marx made at the London Conference; Protocols of the Sessions of September 20, 21, 1871.

September 20

Citizen Lorenzo reminds us to stick to the Rules, and Citizen Bastelica followed his example. In both the original Statutes and the Inaugural Address, I read that the General Council is obligated to prepare an agenda for the Congresses for discussion. The program which the General Council prepared for the Conference deals with the organization of the Association, and Vaillant proposal relates directly to this point. hence the objection of Lorenzo and Bastelica is unfounded. [1]

In virtually all countries, certain members of the International, invoking the mutilated conception of the Statutes adopted at the Geneva Congress, have made propaganda in favor of abstention from politics; and the governments have been quite careful not to impede this restraint. In Germany, Schweitzer and others in the pay of Bismarck even attempted to harness the cart to government policy. In France, this criminal abstention allowed Favre, Picard, and others, to seize power on September 4; this abstention made it possible, on March 18, to set up a dictatorial committee composed largely of Bonapartists and intrigants, who, in the first days, lost the Revolution by inactivity, days which they should have devoted to strengthening the Revolution.

In America, a recently held workers' congress [National Labor Union, August 7-10, 1871, Baltimore] resolved to occupy itself with political questions and to replace professional politicians with workers like themselves, who were authorized to defend the interests of their class.

In England, it is not so easy for a worker to get to Parliament. Since members of Parliament do not receive any compensation, and the worker has to work to support himself, Parliament becomes unattainable for him, and the bourgeoisie knows very well that its stubborn refusal to allow salaries for members of Parliament is a means of preventing the working class from being represented in it.

One should never believe that it is of small significance to have workers in Parliament. If one stifles their voices, as in the case of De Potter and Castian, or if one ejects them, as in the case of Manuel -- the reprisals and oppressions exercise a deep effect on the people. If, on the other hand, they can speak from the parliamentary tribune, as do Bebel and Liebknecht, the whole world listens to them. In the one case or the other, great publicity is provided for our principles. To give but one examples: when during the [Franco-Prussian] war, which was fought in France, Bebel and Liebknecht undertook to point out the responsibility of the working class in the face of those events, all of Germany was shaken; and even in Munich, the city where revolutions take place only over the price of beet, great demonstrations took place demanding an end to the war.

The governments are hostile to us, one must respond to them with all the means at out disposal. To get workers into Parliament is synonymous with a victory over the governments, but one must choose the right men, not Tolains.

Marx supports the proposal of Citizen Vaillant, as well as Frankel's amendment, to state it as a premise, and thus strengthen it, that the Association has always demanded, and not merely from today, that the workers must occupy themselves with politics.

September 21

Marx said he had already spoken yesterday in favor of Vaillant's motion, and therefore he would not oppose him today. He replied to Bastelica that at the beginning of the Conference it was already decided that it would take up exclusively the question of organization and not the question of principles. In regard to the reference to the Rules, he calls attention to the fact that the Statutes and the Inaugural Address, which he hs reread, are to be read as a whole.

He explained the history of abstention from politics and said that one ought not to let himself be irritated by this question. The men who propagated this doctrine were well-meaning utopians, but those who want to take such a road today are not. They reject politics until after a violent struggle, and thereby drive the people into a formal, bourgeois opposition, which we must battle against at the same time we fight against the governments. We must unmask Gambetta, so that the people are no longer hoodwinked. Marx shares Vaillant's opinion. We must reply with a challenge to all the governments that are subjecting the International to persecutions.

Reaction exists on the whole Continent; it is general and permanent -- even in the United States and England -- in one form or another.

We must announce to the governments: We know you are the armed power which is directed against the proletarians; we will move against you in peaceful way where it is possible, and with arms if it should become necessary.

Marx is of the opinion that Vaillant's proposal requires some changes, and he therefore supports Outine's motion. [2]


1. This day, French delegate Edouard Vaillant proposed a resolution stressing the inseparability of politics and economics, they are inherently intertwined, so he urged workers to unite political activities. Proudhonists in the International objected.

2. Note: Outine proposed Vaillant's motion, the amendments by Serraillier and Frankel, be passed to the General Council for further study, under the subject "The Political Efficacy of the Working Class" -- Outine's motion passed.