Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter Eleven: The Early Years of the International


1. The Founding of the International

THE International Workingmen’s Association was founded at a big meeting in St. Martin’s Hall, London, on the 28th of September, 1864, a few weeks after Lassalle’s death.

It was not the work of one individual and it was not “a small body with a large head.” Above all, it was neither an insignificant shadow nor a terrible menace, as it was described alternately by the fantasy of the capitalist ink-slingers in sublime indifference to the facts. The First International was a transitional form of the proletarian struggle for emancipation and it was as necessary as it was transitional.

The capitalist mode of production, an embodied contradiction, both produces and destroys modern States. It intensifies all national antagonisms to the utmost and at the same time it creates all nations in its own image. So long as the capitalist mode of production exists these contradictions are insoluble, and therefore the brotherhood of man about which all bourgeois revolutions have sung so sweetly has suffered defeat again and again. Whilst large-scale industry preached freedom and peace between nations, it also turned the world into an armed camp as never before in history.

However, with the disappearance of the capitalist mode of production its contradictions will vanish also. It is true that the proletarian struggle for emancipation must develop on a national basis because the capitalist process of production develops within national limits, and in the beginning therefore the proletariat in each country finds itself face to face with its own bourgeoisie. Despite this, however, the proletariat need not submit to the merciless competition which has always destroyed all bourgeois dreams of international peace and freedom. As soon as the workers realize that they must get rid of competition in their own ranks if they are to offer effective resistance to the superior power of capital – and this realization coincides with the first awakening of their class-consciousness then it is only a step to the deeper realization that competition between the working classes of the various countries must cease too, and still further, that the working classes must cooperate internationally if they are to overthrow the international dominance of the bourgeoisie.

Very early in the history of the modern working-class movement therefore, a tendency towards internationalism made itself felt. What the bourgeoisie, thanks to the narrowing of its horizon by its Profit interests, regards as unpatriotic, as ignorance and lack of understanding, is in reality a vital condition for the very existence of the proletarian struggle for emancipation. Although this struggle can solve the antagonism between nationalism and internationalism, whilst the bourgeoisie is condemned to writhe under it as long as it lives, the workers possess no magic wand, in this respect any more than in any other, and they are not able to turn the hard and difficult climb into a level and easy path. The modern working class has to fight its battles under conditions created by historical development. It cannot overrun these conditions in a whirlwind charge, but can triumph over them only by understanding them in the Hegelian sense that to understand is to overcome.

This understanding was made more difficult owing to the circumstance that the beginnings of the working-class movement, and the beginnings of internationalism in it, coincided with, crossed and recrossed, the beginnings of a number of great national States, which were being founded as a result of the capitalist mode of production. The declaration of The Communist Manifesto that united action on the part of the proletariat in all civilized countries was a necessary condition of its emancipation was followed a few weeks later by the revolution of 1848. In England and France this revolution lined up the bourgeoisie and the proletariat against each other, but in Germany and Italy it released struggles for national independence. However, as far as the proletariat appeared in the arena as a separate force at all, it recognized quite correctly that although these struggles for national independence could not achieve its final aim, they nevertheless were a stage on the way to its achievement. The proletariat provided the national movements in Germany and Italy with their most courageous fighters, and nowhere did these movements find better advice than in the columns of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung which was issued by the authors of The Communist Manifesto. However, the national struggles naturally forced the idea of internationalism into the background, particularly when the bourgeoisie of Germany and Italy began to take refuge behind reactionary bayonets. In Italy associations of workers formed themselves under the banner of Mazzini, who, although he was no socialist, was at least a republican, whilst in Germany, which was more highly developed than Italy and whose workers had realized the international implications of their cause even in the days of Weitling, a ten-year civil war took place around just this national question.

The situation in England and France when the modern proletarian movement began was quite different, for in both these countries national unity had been achieved long before, and even before the days of the March revolution the idea of internationalism was very much alive. Paris was regarded as the capital of the European revolution and London was the metropolis of the world market, but even in France and England the idea of internationalism experienced a set-back after the defeats suffered by the proletariat.

The terrible blood-letting of the June days exhausted the French working class, and the iron hand of Bonapartist despotism hampered both trade union and political organization. As a result the workingclass movement in France fell back into the sectarianism of pre-revolutionary days and out of its confusion two main tendencies began to develop, separating, one might say, the revolutionary and socialist elements. One of these tendencies crystallized around Blanqui, who had no real socialist program and aimed at seizing political power by the daring coup of a determined minority. The other and incomparably stronger tendency was under the intellectual influence of Proudhon, who sought to lead the workers away from the political struggle with his exchange-bank scheme for the provision of free credit, and similar doctrinaire experiments. Marx had already pointed out in The Eighteenth Brumaire that this movement abandoned all attempts to transform the old world with the tremendous means the latter offered for such purpose, whilst seeking salvation by back-stair methods, by private means, and within its own limited conditions of existence.

After the collapse of the Chartist movement a process of development which was in many respects similar began in England also. The great Utopian Robert Owen was still alive, though very old, and his school had degenerated into a sort of religious free-thought association. Side by side with Owen’s school was the Christian socialism of Kingsley and Maurice, and although it must not be tarred with the same brush as its continental caricatures, it too pursued educational and co-operative aims, and refused to have anything to do with the political struggle. Even the trade unions, which England possessed in contrast to France, remained politically indifferent and confined their activities to satisfying their immediate interests, a policy which was facilitated by the feverish industrial activities of the fifties and by England’s dominating position in the world market.

Despite all this, the international working-class movement on English territory sank only very slowly into a torpor and its traces can be followed into the end of the fifties. The Fraternal Democrats had dragged on into the days of the Crimean War, and even when they finally disappeared, an International Committee was formed and after that an International Association, thanks chiefly to the energies of Ernest Jones. These organizations were never of any great significance, but at least they showed that the idea of internationalism had not died out completely and that its fire still glowed and might be fanned into leaping flames again by a strong breeze.

This breeze sprang up in the form of the commercial crisis of 1857, the war of 1859, and in particular the Civil War which broke out between the Northern and Southern States in America in 1860. The commercial crisis of 1857 struck the first serious blow at Bonapartist rule in France, and the attempt to counter its effects by launching a foreign political adventure was by no means completely successful. The game which the false Bonaparte started quickly slid out of his hands. The movement for Italian unity grew too strong for him to control whilst the French bourgeoisie showed little inclination to let itself be fobbed off with the somewhat sparse laurels of Magenta and Solferino. Under the circumstances the idea of curbing the growing insolence of the bourgeoisie by giving the working class a little more leeway was a fairly obvious one, and in fact the very existence of the Second Empire depended on Bonaparte’s successful solution of the problem of playing off the bourgeoisie and the proletariat against each other whilst holding both in check.

Naturally, Bonaparte intended to make only trade union concessions to the working class and not political concessions. Proudhon, who enjoyed great influence on the working-class movement, was opposed to the Second Empire, although some of his paradoxical utterances might very easily have awakened the contrary impression, but he was also an opponent of strikes. However, this was just the point on which the French workers were getting out of hand, and despite Proudhon’s warnings and despite the severe anti-combination laws no less than 3,909 workers were convicted from 1853 to 1866 for offences against these laws and no less than 749 combinations were involved. The imitation Caesar then began to pardon the convicted men and he also supported the sending of French workers to the World Exhibition in London in 1862, and it must be admitted that he did it in a much more effective and thorough fashion than did the German Nationalverein, which put the same ingenious idea into operation. The delegates were elected by their fellow workers in the same trades. Fifty polling booths for 150 trades were established in Paris, and zoo delegates were elected and sent to London, the expenses of the journey being borne partly by voluntary subscription and partly by subsidies from the imperial and municipal treasuries, which contributed 20,000 francs each. On their return the delegates were permitted to publish detailed reports, and generally speaking these reports went far beyond the limits of trade affairs. Under the conditions existing in France at the time, the affair represented a first class State action and it caused the Police Prefect of Paris, prophetic in his presentiments, to sigh that before the Emperor went in for such experiments it would be better to abolish the anti-combination laws altogether.

In fact, the French workers rewarded their self-seeking patron not in the way he expected, but in the way he deserved. During the elections of 1863 the government candidates in Paris received only 82,000 votes as against 153,000 for the candidates of the opposition, whereas in the elections of 1857 the government candidates had received 111,000 votes and the candidates of the opposition only 96,000 votes. It was generally assumed that this was due only to a slight degree to the changed attitude of the bourgeoisie and chiefly to the changed attitude of the working class, which proclaimed its independence just at the moment when the false Bonaparte began to flirt with the workers, though it still marched under the banner of bourgeois radicalism. This assumption was confirmed by subsequent by elections in Paris in 1864 when sixty workers put forward the metalworker Tolain as their candidate and issued a manifesto announcing the re-birth of socialism. The socialists had learned from past experience, it declared. In 1848 the workers had possessed no clear program and had adopted this or that social theory more by instinct than deliberation, but to-day they rejected all utopian exaggerations and sought relief in social reforms such as the freedom of the press, the right to organize, the repeal of the anti-combination laws, compulsory free education, and the abolition of the religious budget.

At the election, however, Tolain received only a few hundred votes. Proudhon was in agreement with the contents of the manifesto but condemned the participation in the election, regarding the polling of blank ballot papers as a more effective protest against the Second Empire regime. The Blanquists found the manifesto too moderate for them, whilst the bourgeoisie in all its liberal and radical shades, with one or two exceptions, attacked Tolain with mockery and gibes, though in reality there was nothing in his program to give them any cause for anxiety. It was a phenomenon similar to the one which was taking place at the same time in Germany. Encouraged by this, Bonaparte ventured a step further and in May, 1864, a law was passed which, although it did not withdraw the prohibition of trade unions (this was done only four years later), at least, it repealed the paragraphs of the penal code which provided punishments for workers convicted of joining combinations with a view to improving their working conditions.

In England the anti-combination laws had been repealed in 1825, but the existence of the trade unions was still not absolutely secure either legally or actually, whilst the masses of their members did not have the franchise which would have permitted them to abolish the legal hindrances hampering their struggle for better working conditions. The development of continental capitalism destroyed innumerable existences and created dangerous competition for the English workers in the form of sweated labour, and every time they made an attempt to secure higher wages or shorter working hours the English capitalists threatened to import cheap foreign labour-power from France, Belgium, Germany and other countries. In this situation the American Civil War particularly aroused the workers. It produced a cotton crisis which caused great misery amongst the English textile workers.

In this way the English trade unions were shaken out of their comfortable torpor and the “New Unionism” developed, represented by a number of experienced leaders of the older unions: Allan of the engineers, Applegarth of the carpenters, Lucraft of the joiners, Cremer of the builders, Odger of the shoemakers, and others. These men recognized the necessity of a political struggle on behalf of the trade unions, and they turned their attention to the question of reforming the franchise. They were the moving spirits behind a monster meeting which took place in St. Tames’s Hall under the chairmanship of the radical leader John Bright, and registered a fierce protest against Palmerston’s intention of intervening in the American Civil War on the side of the Southern States. When Garibaldi came to London on a visit in the spring of 1864 these leaders organized a tremendous reception for him.

The political re-awakening of the English and French working classes also revived the idea of internationalism. A “fraternal celebration” had taken place in 1862 at the World Exhibition in London between the English workers and the French delegates, and this bond was strengthened still further by the Polish insurrection of 1863. The Polish cause had always been extremely popular amongst the revolutionary elements in the countries of Western Europe. The oppression and dismemberment of Poland had made the three Eastern European powers into a reactionary block, and the restoration of Polish independence would have struck a deadly blow against Russian hegemony in Europe. The Fraternal Democrats had always celebrated the anniversary of the Polish Revolution of 1830 and these celebrations had been enthusiastic demonstrations in favour of a united and independent Poland, but always with the basic idea that the restoration of a free and democratic Poland was a necessary condition for the proletarian struggle for emancipation. This was also the case in 1863, and the social note was sounded very sharply at the celebrations which took place in London in the presence of representatives of the French workers. The social question was also at the basis of an address which a committee of English workers under the chairmanship of Odger sent to the French workers to thank them for having sent representatives to the celebrations in London, and it pointed out in particular that English capital was able to hold the English workers in check by importing sweated foreign labour, only because the working classes in the various countries had not yet established close and fraternal relations with each other.

This address was translated into French by Professor Beesly, a Professor of History at London University who had rendered many services to the workers, and it met with a powerful echo in the workshops of Paris, where the workers decided to send their answer to London in the hands of a special deputation. A meeting to welcome this French deputation took place in St. Martin’s Hall, London, on the 28th of September, 1864, under the chairmanship of Professor Beesly. The hall was packed to the doors and the English workers heard Tolain read the answer of the French workers, which referred to the Polish insurrection in the words: “Once again Poland has been drenched with the blood of its best sons and we were impotent spectators,” and went on to demand that the voice of the people should be heard in all important political and social questions. The despotic power of capital must be broken. Owing to the division of labour, the worker had been turned into a mechanical tool, and free trade without international proletarian solidarity must develop into a form of industrial serfdom more merciless and more terrible than the serfdom which the Great French Revolution had destroyed. The workers of the world must unite in order to offer stern resistance to such a terrible system.

After a lively debate in which Eccarius spoke on behalf of the German workers the meeting adopted the proposal of the trade unionist Wheeler to elect a committee with the power of co-option, and to instruct it to draw up the statutes of an international workers association to be in force temporarily until an international congress to be held in Belgium the next year should decide finally on them. The committee was elected and consisted of numerous trade unionists and representatives of foreign workers, including, for the German workers, Karl Marx, whose name the newspaper reports mentioned last of all.



2. The Inaugural Address

Up to this meeting Marx had taken no active part in the movement, but he had been called upon by the Frenchman Le Lubez to be present at it on behalf of the German workers and to name a German worker as a speaker. Marx put forward Eccarius whilst he remained a silent observer on the platform.

He estimated the importance of his scientific work highly enough to place it ahead of frivolous or hopeless organizational efforts, but he willingly placed it on one side when there was really useful practical work to be done for the cause of the proletariat, and this time he recognized that “affairs of importance” were at stake. He wrote in the same strain to Weydemeyer and other friends: “The recently formed International Workers Committee is not unimportant. Its English members consist chiefly of the heads of the trade unions, that is to say, the real labour lords of London, the men who organized the tremendous reception for Garibaldi and the monster meeting in St. James’s Hall (under Bright’s chairmanship) which prevented Palmerston from declaring war on the Northern States as he intended. As far as the French are concerned, the members of the committee are not very important but they are the direct representatives of the workers in Paris. Connections have also been established with the Italian associations which held their congress in Naples recently. Although for years I have systematically refused to take part in any ‘organizations’. I accepted this time because here there is a possibility of doing some real good.” Writing to Engels he declared: “There is now evidently a revival of the working classes taking place,” and he considered it his primary duty to guide it along the right lines.

Fortunately the circumstances gave him the intellectual leadership automatically. The committee co-opted new members until it was about fifty strong, hull of the members being English workers, whilst the strongest single group after the English was the German group which included Marx, Eccarius, Lessner, Lochner and Pfander, all of whom had been members of the Communist League. France had representatives, Italy 6, and Poland and Switzerland 2 each. After constituting itself, the committee then appointed a sub-committee to draw up a program and statutes.

Marx was also elected to this subcommittee, but owing to illness and the fact that the invitations were sometimes sent out too late he was unable to attend many of its meetings. In the meantime Major Wolff, the private secretary of Mazzini, the Englishman Weston and the Frenchman Le Lubez had vainly tried to perform the task which the sub-committee had been set. Although Mazzini was very popular amongst the English workers at the time, he understood far too little about the modern working-class movement to impress trained trade unionists with the draft he drew up. He simply did not understand the proletarian class struggle and therefore he hated it. His program contained a few socialist phrases, but they were the sort which the proletariat had already abandoned in the sixties, and the statutes he drew up were also conceived in the spirit of a bygone era and provided for a high degree of centralization such as was demanded by the exigencies of political conspiracies. As a result Mazzini’s attempt was utterly foreign not only to the conditions of trade unionism in general, but to the aims of an international association of workers in particular, whose aim was not to create any new movement, but merely to link up the working-class movements which already existed in the various countries. The drafts which Le Lubez and Weston put forward also represented little more than collections of general phrases.

The situation was hopeless, therefore, until Marx took it in hand. He was determined to throw the whole of the previous efforts overboard if possible and in order to emancipate himself from them completely he drew up an address to the working class – an idea which had not occurred to the meeting in St. Martin’s Hall – a sort of review of working-class history since 1848, to serve as an introduction to the statutes of the new organization which might then be clearer and briefer. The sub-committee accepted Marx’s proposals immediately and all it demanded was the addition of a few phrases about “right and duty, truth, morality and justice,” but as Marx pointed out in a letter to Engels, he succeeded in inserting them in such a way that they did no harm. The committee then unanimously and enthusiastically adopted The Inaugural Address and Provisional Rules.

Referring to this document later Professor Beesly declared that it was probably the most tremendous and striking representation of the working-class case against the middle class ever pressed into a dozen pages. It opens by recording the striking fact that in the years from 1848 to 1864 the misery of the working class did not diminish although just this period had gone into history as one of unparalleled industrial development and commercial growth; and it proves its point by comparing the frightful statistics published in the official Blue Books concerning the misery of the English proletariat with the official figures used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gladstone, in his budget speeches to show “the intoxicating augmentation of wealth and power” which had taken place in the same period – but had been entirely confined to classes of property. The Address exposed this glaring contradiction on the basis of English conditions because England was the foremost country of European trade and industry, but it pointed out that similar conditions existed on a somewhat smaller scale, and making allowances for local differences, in all continental countries where large-scale industry was beginning to develop.

All over the world this “intoxicating augmentation of wealth and power” was entirely confined to classes of property, with the one exception perhaps that a small section of the workers, as in England, were receiving somewhat higher wages, though even this improvement was cancelled out by the general increase in prices. “Everywhere the great mass of the working classes sank into ever deeper misery, at least to the same extent as the upper classes rose in the social scale. In all the countries of Europe it is now an irrefutable fact, undeniable for every unprejudiced inquirer and denied only by those who have an interest in awakening deceptive hopes in others, that neither the perfection of machinery nor the application of science to industry and agriculture, neither the resources and artifices of communication nor new colonies and emigration, neither the conquest of new markets nor free trade, nor any combination of all these things, can succeed in abolishing the misery of the working masses. On the contrary, every new development of the creative power of labour is calculated, on the false basis of existing conditions, to intensify the social antagonisms and aggravate the social conflict. During this intoxicating period of economic progress, starvation raised itself almost to the level of a social institution in the capital of the British Empire. This period is characterized in the annals of history by the accelerated return, the extended compass and the deadly effects of the social pest known as the industrial and commercial crisis.”

The Address then glanced at the defeat of the working-class movement in the fifties, and came to the conclusion that even this period had its compensating characteristics. Two facts in particular were stressed, first of all the legal enactment of the ten-hour day with its salutary effects on the English proletariat. The struggle for the legal limitation of the working day had been a direct intervention in the great conflict between the blind forces of the law of supply and demand, which summed up the political economy of the bourgeoisie, and production regulated by social welfare as represented by the working class. “And therefore the Ten Hour Bill was not only a great practical success, but also the victory of a principle; for the first time the political economy of the bourgeoisie was defeated by the political economy of the working class.”

The political economy of the proletariat had won a still greater victory through the co-operative movement and by the establishment of factories based on the principle of co-operation and made possible by the tireless work of a few men without outside assistance. The value of these great social experiments could not be estimated too highly. “In practice instead of by reasoning they have proved that production on a large scale and in accordance with the laws of modern science is possible without the existence of a class of employers giving employment to a class of workers; that in order to bear fruit the tools of labour need not be monopolized as the instruments of an exploiting dominance over the workers; that wage-labour, like slave-labour and serfdom, is only a subordinate and temporary form doomed to disappear before co-operative labour, which performs its difficult task with a willing hand, a joyful spirit and a light heart.” However, co-operative labour limited to occasional attempts would not be able to break the monopoly of capital. “Perhaps just for this reason aristocrats apparently high-minded in their ideas, philanthropic theoreticians of the bourgeoisie and even hard-headed economists have suddenly begun to pay loathsome compliments to the co-operative labour system, which they tried vainly to suppress in its infancy, mocked at as the utopianism of dreamers or condemned as the madness of socialists.” Only the development of co-operative labour to national dimensions could save the working masses, but the owners of land and capital would always mobilize their political privileges to perpetuate their economic monopoly indefinitely and it was therefore the great duty of the working class to conquer political power.

The workers seemed to have grasped the necessity of this, as was proved by the simultaneous resuscitation of the working-class movement in England, France, Germany and Italy, and by the simultaneous efforts to reorganize the workers politically. “They possess one element of success – numbers. But numbers are weighty in the scales only when they are united in an organization and led towards a conscious aim.” Past experience had shown that to ignore the fraternity which should exist between the workers of all countries and spur them on to stand shoulder to shoulder in all the struggles for their emancipation, always revenged itself in a general failure of all their unrelated efforts. This consideration had moved the meeting in St. Martin’s Hall to found the International Workingmen’s Association.

A further conviction had impelled the meeting: the emancipation of the workers demanded fraternal relations between the workers of all countries, but how could this high aim be achieved in face of a foreign policy on the part of the various governments pursuing criminal aims, exploiting national prejudices, and shedding the blood and wasting the substance of the peoples in predatory wars? Not the wisdom of the ruling classes but the heroic resistance of the proletariat against criminal folly had saved the countries of Western Europe from an infamous crusade to perpetuate slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless applause, the hypocritical sympathy or the stupid indifference with which the ruling classes had watched Tsarist Russia conquer the mountain fastnesses of Caucasia and slaughter the heroic Poles indicated to the working classes their duty to penetrate into the secrets of international politics, to watch the diplomatic tricks of their governments closely, to oppose them with all possible means and, should it prove impossible to frustrate them, to organize great demonstrations to demand that the simple laws of morality and justice which governed the relations between individuals should also be the supreme laws governing the relations between nations. The struggle for such a foreign policy was part and parcel of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class. The address then concluded as The Communist Manifesto had concluded, with the words: “Workers of the World Unite!”

The Provisional Rules began with reflections which may be summed up as follows: the emancipation of the working class must be the task of the workers themselves. The struggle for the emancipation of the working class is not a struggle for the establishment of new class privileges, but for the abolition of class rule altogether. The economic subjugation of the worker to those who have appropriated the tools of labour, i.e., the source of life, results in servitude in all its forms: social misery, intellectual atrophy and political dependence. The economic emancipation of the working class is therefore the great aim for which all political movements must serve as a means. Up to the present all attempts to realize this great aim have been unsuccessful owing to the lack of unity between the various working-class groups in each country and between the working classes of the various countries. The emancipation of the workers is neither a local nor a national task, but a social one. It is a task which embraces all countries in which modern society exists and it can be achieved only by systematic co-operation between all these countries. The moral platitudes about justice and truth, duties and rights which Marx had embodied in his text so unwillingly were then hung on to these clear and trenchant passages.

The head of the new association was a General Council composed of workers from the various countries represented in the association, but until the first congress the committee elected by the meeting in St. Martin’s Hall exercised the functions of the General Council. The tasks of this council were: to establish international relations between the working-class organizations in the various countries, to inform the workers of each country regularly concerning the activities of their fellow workers in other countries, to collect statistics on the situation of the working classes in the various countries, to discuss questions of general interest to all working-class organizations, to secure uniform and simultaneous action on the part of all affiliated organizations in the event of international disputes, to publish regular reports on the work of the association, and other similar tasks.

The General Council was to be elected by the congress which was to meet once a year and determine the seat of the council and the place and time of the next congress. The General Council had the right to co-opt new members and, if necessary, to alter the venue of the next congress, but not to postpone it. The workers organizations in the various countries which affiliated to the International were to retain their organizational independence completely and any independent local organization might take up direct relations with the General Council, although in the interest of effectiveness it was regarded as desirable that the various organizations in the individual countries should unite as far as possible on a national basis and under central bodies.

Although it would be quite wrong to describe the International as the work of “one great brain,” it is nevertheless true that when it was founded it had a great brain at its disposal which saved it long and tedious wanderings on the wrong track by pointing out the right one from the beginning. Marx did no more than this and it was never his intention to do any more. The incomparable mastery which the Inaugural Address reveals is based on the fact that it proceeded from the given situation and, as Liebknecht aptly pointed out, contained the final implications of communism no less than The Communist Manifesto.

However, The Inaugural Address and Provisional Rules differed from The Communist Manifesto not only in the form: “Time is necessary,” Marx wrote to Engels, “before the revived movement can permit itself the old audacious language. The need of the moment is: bold in matter, but mild in manner. It also had a very different task. The aim of the International was to unite the whole of the fighting proletariat of Europe and America into one great army, and to give it a program which, in the words of Engels, would leave the door open for the English trade unions, the French, Belgian, Italian and Spanish Proudhonists, and the German Lassalleans. Marx relied exclusively on the intellectual development of the working class which would result from its united action to guarantee the final victory of scientific socialism as set out in The Communist Manifesto.

It was not long before his hopes were subjected to a severe test, for hardly had the propaganda work of the International begun when it came into severe conflict with that section of the European working class which understood the principles of the International better than any other.



3. The Breach with Schweitzer

It is a legend, but neither a true nor an agreeable one, that the German Lassalleans refused to affiliate with the International and took up a hostile attitude towards it from the beginning.

In the first place, it is quite impossible to find any reason which might have caused them to take up such an attitude. It is true that they attached great importance to their own closely knit organization, but the Provisional Rules of the International threatened no sort of interference and above all they could subscribe to the Inaugural Address from beginning to end and with particular satisfaction to that section which declared that only the development of the co-operatives to national dimensions and their furtherance by State means could save the working masses.

The truth is that from the very beginning the Lassalleans ill Germany took up a friendly attitude towards the International although at the time of its foundation they were deeply engrossed in their own troubles. After the death of Lassalle and at his testamentary recommendation, Bernhard Becker was elected President of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein, but he soon proved himself so incompetent that hopeless confusion resulted and all that held the organization together was its organ Der Sozialdemocrat, which had been appearing since the end of 1864 under the intellectual leadership of J.B. von Schweitzer, an energetic and capable man who had done his best to secure the co-operation of Marx and Engels. Without any pressure having been exerted on him, he made Liebknecht a member of the editorial board and in the second and third numbers of the paper he published the Inaugural Address.

The Paris correspondent of the paper, Moses Hess, cast suspicion on Tolain, declaring him to be a friend-of the Palais Royal, in which Jerome Bonaparte was playing the role of red demagogue, but Schweitzer published the letter only after having secured the express agreement of Liebknecht, and when Marx complained, he did his utmost to settle the affair amicably and ordered that Liebknecht should first edit everything the paper published concerning the International. On the 15th of February, 1865, Schweitzer wrote to Marx informing him that he intended to put forward a resolution declaring his organization completely in agreement with the principles of the International and deciding to send delegates to its congresses. His organization would not, however, affiliate formally with the International, solely on account of the German federal laws which prohibited the establishment of any connections between working-class organizations. Schweitzer received no answer to this letter and instead Marx and Engels issued a public declaration breaking off all connections with the Sozialdemocrat.

These facts show clearly enough that the unfortunate breach had nothing whatever to do with disagreements in connection with the International, and its real cause is explained quite frankly by Marx and Engels in their declaration. They had never failed to take the difficult situation of the Sozialdemocrat into consideration, they declared, and they had never put forward any demands unsuited to the Berlin meridian, but they had repeatedly demanded that the paper at least should be no less audacious towards the government and the feudal-absolutist party than towards the Progressives. The tactics pursued by the Sozialdemocrat made it impossible for them to contribute any further to it. They still subscribed word for word to what they had once written on royal Prussian governmental socialism and the attitude of a working-class party to such a tawdry deception. This statement had been given in the Deutsch-Brüsseler Zeitung, in answer to the Rheinischer Beobachter which had proposed “an alliance of the proletariat with the government against the liberal bourgeoisie.” As a matter of fact, the tactics pursued by the Sozialdemocrat had nothing to do with any such “alliance” or with any “royal Prussian governmental socialism.” When Lassalle’s first hope of arousing the German working class in one powerful onset proved to be a vain one, the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein with its few thousand members found itself wedged in between two opponents each of which was strong enough to crush it. From the bourgeoisie the young workers party had nothing to expect but stupid hatred, whereas it might reasonably expect that the cunning diplomat Bismarck would not be able to carry out his Greater Prussia policy without making certain concessions to the masses of the people. Schweitzer never harboured any illusions about the value or the aim of such concessions, but at a time when the German working class was practically deprived of the right to organize, when it enjoyed no effective franchise, and when the freedom of the press, of association and of meeting were at the mercy of bureaucratic arbitrariness, the Social Democracy could not hope to make progress by attacking both its opponents simultaneously and with equal energy, but only by playing one off against the other. Naturally, an absolutely necessary condition for such a policy was the complete independence of the new workers party towards both sides and a firm consciousness of this independence amongst the working masses.

Schweitzer pursued this policy with vigour and success, and it is impossible to find anything in the columns of the Sozialdemocrat which savours of an “alliance” with the government against the Progressives. An examination of his activities against the general political background of the day will reveal some mistakes – admitted by himself – but on the whole a sagacious and logical policy guided exclusively by the interests of the working class, and certainly not dictated by Bismarck or any other reactionary.

Although in other respects Schweitzer was not the equal of Marx and Engels, he had at least one advantage over them and that was a thorough knowledge of conditions in Prussia. They had no firsthand knowledge of the situation whilst Liebknecht, upon whom the task of making good this deficiency naturally devolved, did not perform it at all satisfactorily. Liebknecht had returned to Germany in 1862 to found, together with the red republican, Brass, the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung; but hardly had his editorial work begun when he discovered that Brass had sold the paper to Bismarck. He immediately parted company with the paper, but this first experience on German territory was unfortunate not only in the sense that it left him once again in a critical financial situation reminiscent of the days of his exile – this did not worry him unduly because he was accustomed to placing the cause above his own personal interests – but also because it prevented him from obtaining an unprejudiced view of the new conditions he found in Germany.

When he returned he was fundamentally still the old ’48er in the spirit of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which paid much less attention to socialist theory and even to the class struggle than it did to the revolutionary struggle of the nation against the rule of the reactionary classes. Although he was well versed in the fundamental ideas of socialist theory, Liebknecht was never a profound socialist theorist, and the chief thing he had learned from Marx during the years of exile was the latter’s tendency to search the wide fields of international politics for any signs of revolutionary developments. As Rhinelanders Marx and Engels were inclined to regard everything East Elbian too contemptuously and they therefore underestimated the importance of the Prussian State, but Liebknecht was still worse for he had been born in South Germany, and in the early years of the movement he had been either in Baden or in Switzerland, the two strongholds of particularism. He regarded Prussia as the Russian vassal of pre-March days, as a reactionary State which fought against historical progress with the contemptible means of corruption, a State which must be defeated before it would be possible to think of any modern class struggle in Germany. He failed to recognize how much the economic development of the fifties had changed the Prussian State and created circumstances which made the separation of the working class from bourgeois democracy a historical necessity.

In consequence any permanent understanding between Liebknecht and Schweitzer was impossible and in Liebknecht’s eyes it was the last straw when Schweitzer published a series of five articles on Bismarck’s Ministry drawing a masterly parallel between the Greater Prussia policy and the proletarian revolutionary policy in the question of German unity, but committing the “error” of describing the dangerous energy of Bismarck’s policy so eloquently that the description seemed almost a glorification. On the other hand, in a letter to Schweitzer on the 13th of February, Marx committed the “error” of declaring that although the Prussian government might adopt all sorts of frivolous experiments with the idea of productive co-operatives, it would not repeal the anti-combination laws and curb bureaucracy and police rule. However, Marx was inclined to overlook what he had himself so eloquently put forward against Proudhon, namely, that governments could not control economic circumstances but were themselves controlled by them. A few years later the Bismarck Ministry was compelled willy-nilly to repeal the anti-combination laws. In his answering letter of the 15th of February – the letter in which he promised to work for the International in the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein and again informed Marx that Liebknecht was being entrusted with the editorship of all matters relating to the International – Schweitzer declared that he would gladly listen to any theoretical advice Marx might have to give, but that in order to decide on practical questions and immediate tactics one must be in the centre of the movement itself and have a thorough knowledge of existing conditions. Marx and Engels then broke with him.

These misunderstandings and complications can be fully understood only in connection with the unfortunate activities of Countess Hatzfeldt, who sinned grievously against the memory of the man who had once saved her name from obloquy. She sought to turn Lassalle’s creation into an orthodox sect upholding the words of the master as its supreme law, but even then it was not so much the word of the master as the interpretation Countess Hatzfeldt put upon it which was to be the supreme law. The mischief she did can be seen from a letter written by Engels to Weydemeyer on the 10th of March, in which after a few words on the founding of the Sozialdemocrat he declares: “An intolerable Lassalle cult developed in the paper, and in the meantime we learned definitely (old Countess Hatzfeldt informed Liebknecht and appealed to him to act in the same spirit) that Lassalle was much more deeply involved with Bismarck than we had thought. A formal alliance existed between them and things had gone so far that Lassalle was to go to Schleswig-Holstein to support the annexation of the Duchies whilst in return Bismarck made a vague promise to introduce a sort of general franchise and a rather more definite promise to grant the right to organize, to make social concessions, to give State support to the workers organizations, etc. The foolish Lassalle had no guarantees at all that Bismarck would keep his part of the agreement and he would certainly have been packed off to gaol the moment he made himself a nuisance. The editors of the Sozialdemocrat know this perfectly well and yet they are keeping up the Lassalle cult more vigorously than ever. In addition, they let themselves be intimidated by Wagner (of the Kreuz-Zeitung) and paid court to Bismarck, flirted with his ideas, etc., etc. We published a declaration and broke off relations and Liebknecht did the same.” It is difficult to understand how Marx and Engels, who both knew Lassalle well and who both read the Sozialdemocrat, could have been taken in by the fantastic stories of Countess Hatzfeldt, but as this was the case it was only logical that they broke off all relations with the movement which Lassalle had founded.

However, their action had no practical effects on that movement and even old members of the Communist League like Roser, who had defended the principles of The Communist Manifesto so brilliantly before the Cologne Assizes, declared themselves in favour of Schweitzer’s tactics.


Last updated on 27.2.2004