Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter Eleven: The Early Years of the International


4. The First Conference in London

The German Lassalleans were thus excluded from the sphere of the International from the beginning and at first the propaganda amongst the English trade unionists and the French Proudhonists made very slow progress.

After all, it was only a small circle of trade union leaders who had realized the necessity of the political struggle and even they regarded the International more as a means to attain trade union ends than anything else. But at least, they possessed a great amount of practical experience in organizational questions, whereas the French Proudhonists had neither this, nor any insight into the historical character of the working-class movement. The new organization had in fact set itself a tremendous task and it needed both tremendous energy and tremendous industry to perform it.

Although Marx was plagued again and again by painful illnesses and although he was itching to complete his scientific work, he spared neither energy nor industry in the cause of the International. On one occasion he sighed: “The worst part about such agitation is that it disturbs one’s work, and on another occasion he declared that the International and everything connected with it weighed on him “like an incubus” and he would be glad to shake it off. However, he realized that once having put his hand to the plough he could not look back, and in reality he would not have been Marx, had not the carrying of this burden made him happier and more hopeful than its abandonment could possibly have done.

It soon became clear that Marx was the actual “head” of the movement. Not that he pushed himself forward in any way, for he had an unlimited contempt for all cheap popularity, and unlike those Democrats who made themselves look important in public whilst in reality doing nothing, he did a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes whilst at the same time keeping himself well out of the public view. However, there was not another man in the organization who possessed the unusual qualities necessary for its great tasks: the clear and deep insight into the laws of historical development, the energy to pursue the necessary unswervingly, the patience to be satisfied within the limits of the possible, the forebearance with honest error and the masterful ruthlessness with obstinate ignorance. To a far greater extent than in Cologne, Marx was now in a position to exercise his incomparable gift of mastering men by teaching and leading them.

The personal disputes and quarrels which are inevitably part and parcel of the beginnings of all such movements cost him “an enormous amount of time,” and the Italian, and in particular the French members caused him a lot of unnecessary difficulties. Since the revolutionary years there had existed a deep antipathy between the “hand and brain workers” in Paris. The proletarians found it difficult to forget the all too frequent treachery of the intellectuals and the latter decried all working-class movements which refused to have anything to do with them; whilst under the stifling pressure of Bonapartist military despotism, which made every means of contact through newspapers or organizations impossible, the suspicion of Bonapartist trickery was rife even in the ranks of the working class itself. The bubbling and simmering of this “French stew” cost the General Council many a valuable evening and the adoption of many a long-winded resolution.

Marx’s activities in connection with the English section of the International were more agreeable and fruitful. The English workers had strenuously opposed the intention of their government to intervene in the American Civil War on the side of the rebellious Southern States, and when Abraham Lincoln was re-elected President they sent him a message of greetings and congratulation. Marx drew up this address to the “son of the working class” who had been entrusted with the task of leading his country in a noble struggle to emancipate an enslaved race. So long as the white workers of America failed to realize that the existence of human slavery was a shame to the republic, so long as they boasted to the Negro, himself sold without being asked, of their own inestimable privilege of selling themselves and choosing their masters, they would be incapable of winning real freedom or of supporting the struggle of their European brothers for freedom. However, the sea of blood shed during the Civil War had swept away this barrier.

Although like Lessing, Marx always spoke of his own work in derogatory terms, he obviously put his whole heart into this address. Writing to Engels, he declared that he had been instructed to give the address its form, which was a more difficult task than if he had been made responsible for the content as well, and that he had done so in order that the language should at least be different from the usual vulgar democratic phraseology which was the usual stock-in-trade of such documents. Lincoln did not fail to observe the difference and, much to the surprise of the London newspapers, for “the old man” invariably replied to congratulations from bourgeois democratic circles with a few formal compliments, he answered the address in a warm and friendly tone.

In view of its content an address read by Marx on Value, Price and Profit on the 26th of June, 1865, to the General Council of the International was much more important. Its aim was to refute the contention of a number of members of the council that a general rise in wages could be of no real use to the workers and that therefore the trade unions were harmful. This was based on the erroneous assumption that wages determined the value of commodities and that if the capitalists pay 5 instead of 4 shillings in wages to-day, they will sell their commodities for 5 instead of 4 shillings to-morrow, as a result of the increased demand. Marx declared that although this was very shallow reasoning and took only the most superficial appearance of things into account, it was nevertheless not easy to explain all the economic questions involved to ignoramuses. It was impossible to compress a course of political economy into one hour. However, in fact he succeeded in doing so admirably and he was thanked by the trade unions for having rendered them a valuable service.

It was chiefly the growing movement for a reform of the franchise which brought the International its first signal successes, and on the 1st of May, 1865, Marx reported to Engels: “The ‘Reform League’ is our work. In the central committee of twelve (six representatives each of the middle class and the working class) all the working-class representatives are members of our General Council, including Eccarius. We have foiled all the middleclass attempts to deceive the workers ... If this attempt to regenerate the political workingclass movement in England succeeds then our association will have done more for the European working class than would have been possible in any other fashion, and without making a noise about it. And there is every prospect of success.” On the 3rd of May, Engels answered: “In a very short space of time and with very little to-do the international association has really won a tremendous amount of ground. It is a good thing that it is now so busily engaged in England instead of forever bothering its head with the cliquism of the French. At least you have some compensation for your lost time.” However, it was soon to become evident that even this success had its unsatisfactory side.

Marx considered that on the whole the political situation was not yet mature enough to justify the holding of the public congress which had been arranged to take place in Brussels in 1865, and he feared, not without good reason, that it would degenerate into a Babel of tongues. With great difficulty and against particularly energetic opposition from the French he succeeded in securing agreement for the holding of a closed conference in London instead of the public congress in Brussels, a conference to be attended only by the representatives of the leading committees and to be no more than a preliminary to the future congress. in support of his standpoint Marx advanced the following reasons: the necessity of previous agreement and discussion, the reform movement in England, the wave of strikes springing up in France, and finally the legislation against foreigners being introduced in Belgium, which would make it impossible to hold the congress there.

The conference took place in London from the 25th to the 29th of September, 1865. The General Council was represented by its President Odger, its General Secretary Cremer, a number of English members, and Marx and his two chief assistants in the affairs of the International-Eccarius, and Jung, a Swiss watchmaker who lived in London and spoke English, German and French equally well. France was represented by Tolain, Fribourg and Limousin, all of whom were later to abandon the International. Also present were Marx’s old friend of 1848, Schily, and Varlin, who was to be hero and martyr of the Paris Commune. Switzerland sent two delegates, the bookbinder Dupleix for the Franco-Italian Swiss workers and Johann Philipp Becker, a former brush-maker and now a tireless revolutionary agitator, for the German Swiss workers. Belgium was represented by Caesar de Paepe, who had begun to study medicine as a compositor’s apprentice and had succeeded in becoming a doctor.

The conference dealt first of all with the finances of the association and it was revealed that the total income for the first year had been about 33 pounds. No agreement was reached with regard to regular membership subscriptions, but it was agreed to raise 150 pounds for propaganda purposes and to cover the expenses in connection with the forthcoming congress, 80 pounds to be raised in England, 40 pounds in France and 10 pounds each in Belgium and Switzerland. The budget of the International was never its most impressive feature nor did money ever represent the sinews of its war. Years later Marx declared with grim humour that the finances of the International had always represented steadily growing negative quantities, and still later Engels wrote that the famous “millions of the International” had been chiefly debts, and that, in all probability, so much had never been achieved with so little money.

The report on the situation in England was delivered by the General Secretary Cremer, who declared that although it was generally believed on the Continent that the English trade unions were very rich and well able to support a cause they felt to be their own, they were in fact bound down by petty statutes which kept their expenditure within very narrow limits. With very few exceptions English trade unionists knew nothing about politics and it was very difficult to enlighten them. However, a certain amount of progress was being made. A few years ago representatives of the International would have been unable to obtain even a hearing, whereas to-day they received a friendly reception and their principles met with approval. It was the first time that an organization connected with politics had succeeded in establishing such relations with the trade unions.

Fribourg and Tolain reported that the International was meeting with a good reception in France. Apart from Paris, members had been won in Rouen, Nantes, Elbeuf, Caen and other places, and a considerable number of membership cards had been sold at 1.25 francs for the annual subscription. Unfortunately the proceeds had been exhausted by the setting up of a bureau in Paris and by the expenses of the delegates to the conference. However, the General Council was offered the consoling prospect of the sale of the remaining 400 membership cards. The French delegates complained that the postponement of the congress had been a great hindrance to the development of the movement. The French workers were intimidated by the Bonapartist police regime and one met continually with the objection: show us what you can do first of all, and then we will join you.

The reports which Becker and Dupleix made for Switzerland were very favourable, although the agitation there had been going on only for six months. In Geneva there were 400 members and in Lausanne and Vevey 150 members each. The monthly membership subscription had been fixed at 50 pence, but the members would gladly pay double that amount because they were thoroughly convinced of the necessity of supporting the General Council financially. Despite this the Swiss delegates also brought no money, and instead they offered the conference the consoling reflection that there would have been a nice round sum available if the delegates had not had to pay the expenses of their journey to England.

The agitation in Belgium had been going on for a month only but de Paepe reported that 60 members had already been won and that an agreement had been made for an annual membership subscription of at least 3 francs, of which one-third should go to the General Council.

In the name of the General Council Marx proposed that the congress should be held in Geneva in September or October, 1866. The place of the congress was agreed to unanimously, but at the vigorous insistence of the French delegates the date was put forward to the last week in May. The French delegates also demanded that anyone in possession of a membership card of the International should be given a seat and a vote at the congress, declaring that this was a matter of principle and the real meaning of the general franchise. Exclusively delegate representation at the congress, as demanded by Cremer and Eccarius, was secured only after a lively debate.

The General Council had drawn up a very big agenda for the congress: co-operative work, the shortening of working hours, female and child-labour, the past and future of the trade unions, the influence of the standing army on the interests of the working classes, etc., but only two points produced differences of opinion, and one of them was not put forward by the General Council at all, but by the French delegates. They demanded that “religious ideas and their influence on the social, political and cultural movement,” should be made a special point on the agenda. How they came to put forward this suggestion and what attitude Marx took up towards it can perhaps best be seen in a few sentences in the obituary article on Proudhon written by Marx a few months later and published in Schweitzer’s Sozialdemocrat, the only contribution he ever made to the latter paper, by the way. “Proudhon’s attack on religion and on the churches, etc., rendered a great local service at a time when the French socialists considered it necessary to prove their superiority to the bourgeois Voltairism of the eighteenth century and the German Godlessness of the nineteenth century by their religiousness. Peter the Great defeated Russian barbarism with barbarism, and Proudhon did his best to defeat French phraseology with the phrase.” The English delegates also warned the conference against having anything to do with this “apple of discord,” but the French delegates insisted and their motion was adopted with 18 against 13 votes.

The other point on the agenda which produced disagreement was put forward by the General Council and dealt with a question of European politics which Marx considered of particular importance, namely “the necessity of opposing the growing influence of Russia in European affairs by re-establishing the independence of Poland on a democratic and socialist basis in accordance with the right of self-determination for all nationalities.” The French delegates in particular were opposed to this: Why mix up political with social questions? Why wander so far afield when there was so much oppression to be fought at home Why bother so much about the influence of the Russian government when that of the Prussian, Austrian, French and English governments was no less evil? The Belgian delegate Caesar de Paepe was particularly energetic in his opposition, declaring that the restoration of an independent Poland would benefit three classes only: the higher aristocracy, the lower aristocracy and the clerics.

Proudhon’s influence made itself clearly felt here. He had repeatedly opposed the restoration of Polish independence, the last occasion having been in connection with the Polish insurrection in 1863 when, as Marx pointed out frankly in the obituary article, he indulged in idiotic cynicism to the advantage of the Tsar. At the same time the insurrection had awakened all the old sympathies Marx and Engels had evidenced for the Polish cause in the revolutionary years; they intended to issue a joint manifesto on the insurrection, but in the end this intention was not carried out.

Their sympathy for Poland was certainly not uncritical. On the 21st of April, 1863, Engels had written to Marx: “I must say that it takes a thick hide to summon up any enthusiasm for the Polacks of 1772. In the greater part of Europe the aristocracy of the day went down decently and even with wit, although its general maxim was that materialism represented what one ate, on what one slept, what one gained at the gaming tables or received for hard work. No aristocracy was quite so stupid as the Polish in the way it sold itself to the Russians.” However, so long as there was no possibility of a revolution in Russia itself, the restoration of Polish independence offered the only possibility of checking Russian influence in Europe and therefore Marx regarded the brutal suppression of the Polish insurrection and the simultaneous drive of Tsarism into Caucasia as the most important events in Europe since 1815. In that part of The Inaugural Address which dealt with the foreign policy of the proletariat he had laid the greatest stress on the Polish question, and the resistance put up by Tolain, Fribourg and others on just this point caused him to refer with bitterness to their opposition for a long time afterwards. However, with the assistance of the English delegates he succeeded in breaking down the opposition and the item remained on the agenda.

The conference held private sessions in the morning, under the chairmanship of Jung, and semi-public meetings in the evening, under the chairmanship of Odger. Those questions which had already been thrashed out and agreed upon in the private sessions were then brought up for discussion in these evening meetings before a larger audience which consisted chiefly of workers. On their return to Paris the French delegates published a report of the conference and the agenda which had been drawn up for the congress and this met with a lively echo in the Paris press. Marx observed with obvious satisfaction: “Our Parisians have been somewhat surprised to discover that just the paragraphs on Russia and Poland which they wanted to have deleted created the biggest sensation.” And many years afterwards he still recalled with lively satisfaction “the enthusiastic comments” which these passages in particular and the congress agenda in general had produced from the famous French historian, Henri Martin.



5. The Austro-Prussian War

The time and energy which Marx devoted to the cause of the International had the disagreeable result that his efforts to earn a living were interfered with and his old financial troubles arose again.

On the 31st of July, he was again compelled to write to Engels informing him that for the last two months the family had been living on the pawnshop: “I assure you I would sooner cut off my finger than write this letter. It is truly crushing to have to live half one’s life in dependence. The only consolation which sustains me is that you and I are in partnership and that my job is to give my time to theoretical and party business. I am afraid this house is rather above my means and this year we have lived a little better than usual, but it was the only way to give the children an opportunity of establishing connections which might offer them some security for their future, not to mention the fact that it was some little recompense for all they have gent: through. I think you will agree with me that even purely from the business point of view a completely proletarian household would be unsuitable here, although as far as my wife and I are concerned it would be all right, or if the girls were boys.” Engels assisted his friend immediatelY, but the petty worries and troubles of securing a bare existence again began to plague Marx and his family, and they continued to do so for a number of years.

A few months later, on the 5th of October, 1865, a letter from Lothar Bucher offered Marx an unexpected opportunity of earning money, and in a most peculiar fashion. Bucher had lived as an emigrant in London, but the two men had maintained no relations and certainly not friendly ones. Even when Bucher began to take up an independent position in the general emigrant tangle and joined Urquhart as the latter’s enthusiastic supporter, Marx remained critical towards him, but Bucher spoke very favourably to Borkheim of Marx’s answer to Vogt and wanted to review it for the Allgemeine Zeitung. No such review ever appeared, but whether this was because Bucher did not write it or because the Allgemeine Zeitung refused to print it, there is now no means of telling. After the granting of the Prussian amnesty Bucher returned to Germany and in Berlin he made friends with Lassalle. With the latter he visited the Great Exhibition in London in 1862 and through him he became acquainted with Marx, who described him as, “a fine but rather confused chappie” and thought it unlikely that he was in agreement with Lassalle’s “foreign policy.” After Lassalle’s death Bucher had entered the service of the Prussian government and in a letter to Engels, Marx had dismissed him and Rodbertus with the round abuse: “A miserable pack, all that rabble from Berlin, Brandenburg and Pomerania!”

And now Bucher wrote: “First of all to business: the Staatsanzeiger would like a monthly report on the movements of the money-market (and naturally of the commodity market, in so far as the two cannot be separated), and I was asked whether I could recommend anyone. I replied that I knew of no one better suited to the job than you, and in consequence I have been asked to approach you in the matter. You would not be limited with regard to the length of the articles, the more thorough and comprehensive the better. With regard to the content you would naturally follow only the dictates of your scientific convictions. However, consideration for the readers (haute finance) and not for the editorial board would make it advisable to leave the inner core of the matter visible only to experts, and to avoid all polemics.” A few business observations then followed, a reference to a joint outing with Lassalle, whose end would always remain “a psychological riddle” to the writer, and then the remark that he, Marx, was no doubt aware that the writer had since returned to his first love, the files. “I never shared Lassalle’s opinions and always thought he saw things developing more quickly than really was the case. Progress will shed its skin many times before it dies, and therefore anyone who wants to work within the State during his lifetime must rally round the government.” After recommendations to Frau Marx and greetings to the young ladies, and in particular the little one, the letter closed with the traditional flourish: “Your obedient and respectful servant.”

Marx rejected the offer, but no detailed information is obtainable as to what he actually wrote, and what he actually thought about Bucher’s letter. Immediately after having received it he went to Manchester where no doubt he discussed the matter with Engels, but there is no mention of the matter at all in their letters to each other and only one passing reference in Marx’s letters to his other friends, as far as they are known. Fourteen years later, when the terrorist attempts of Hödel and Nobiling let loose a fierce campaign of incitement against the socialists, he published Bucher’s letter, and its effect was like a bomb-shell in the camp of the socialist-baiters. At the time of the publication Bucher was secretary to the Berlin Congress, and according to the statement of his semi-official biographer it was he who drew up the first anti-socialist bill brought forward after the Hödel and Nobiling outrages, but rejected by the Reichstag.

Since then there has been much discussion as to whether Bucher’s letter was an attempt by Bismarck to buy Marx, and it is certain at least that in the autumn of 1865, after the signing of the Treaty of Gastein had ineffectively patched up the threatening breach with Austria, Bismarck was inclined, to use his own hunting simile, “to let loose any dog willing to bark.” Bismarck himself was far too much an inveterate East Elbian Junker to flirt with the working class in the way Disraeli, or even Louis Bonaparte, did, and the droll ideas he formed about Lassalle, whom he met personally on a number of occasions, are sufficiently known. However, in his immediate entourage he had two people who were better equipped to deal with this delicate question; these were Lothar Bucher and Hermann Wagener. It is a fact that at the time Wagener was doing his best to decoy the German working-class movement, and as far as Countess Hatzfeldt had any say in the matter he succeeded. As the intellectual leader of the Junkers and an old friend of Bismarck from the pre-March days, Wagener was in an incomparably stronger position than Bucher, who was completely dependent on Bismarck’s good-will owing to the fact that the bureaucracy regarded him with suspicion as an intruder, whilst the King refused to have anything whatever to do with him on account of 1848. And in any case, Bucher was a weakling, “a fish without bones,” as his friend Rodbertus declared.

If Bucher’s letter was really an attempt to buy Marx, it was certainly not made without Bismarck’s knowledge, but it is doubtful whether it actually was such an attempt. The way in which Marx used the letter in 1878 during the anti-socialist campaign was irrepreachable and it was a clever move, but it does not even prove that Marx himself considered the letter an attempt to buy him, much less that the letter actually was such an attempt. Bucher was well aware that since Marx had broken off relations with Schweitzer the German Lassalleans had no very high opinion of him, and further, a monthly report on the movements of the money-market in the most boring of all German newspapers can hardly have recommended itself as an effective means to pacify the general discontent with Bismarck’s policy, not to speak of winning the support of the workers for that policy. Under the circumstances, therefore, there is more than a little to be said in favour of Bucher’s statement that he recommended his old companion in exile to the Curator of the Staatsanzeiger without any ulterior political motive, though perhaps with the proviso that the Curator had already refused to accept a representative of the Manchester shool. Having suffered a rebuff at Marx’s hands, Bucher then approached Dühring, who agreed to take over the work but very soon~gave it up when it turned out that the Curator of the Staatsanzeiger was very far from possessing that respect for “scientific convictions” with which Bucher had credited him.

Worse even than the increasing economic difficulties with which Marx had to contend as a result of his active work for the International and his own scientific work was the fact that his health began to suffer more and more. On the 10th of February, 1866, Engels wrote: “You must really do something to get rid of this carbuncle business ... Stop your night work for a time and lead more regular life.” And on the 13th of February Marx replied: “Yesterday I was on my back again with a malignant boil which formed in my left groin. If I had money enough for my family and my book were finished I shouldn’t care in the least whether I went to the knacker’s yard to-day or to-morrow, as it is, however, I do care.” And a week later Engels received the alarming information: “This time it was touch and go. My family didn’t know how serious the matter really was. If the thing breaks out again three or four times in the same fashion I am a dead man. I have fallen away terribly and still feel damned weak, not so much in my head as in my loins and legs. The doctors are right of course when they say that excessive night work was the cause of the relapse, but I can’t tell them what compels me to commit such extravagances, and it would be no use if I could.” However, Engels now insisted that he should give himself a rest for a few weeks and he went to Margate.

In Margate he soon recovered his spirits and in a cheerful letter to his daughter Laura he wrote: “I am really glad that I went to a private house and not to a hotel where I should inevitably have been bothered with local politics, domestic scandals and neighbourly tittle-tattle, but still, I can’t sing with the Miller of Dee that I care for nobody and nobody cares for me, because after all there is my landlady, who is as deaf as a post, and her daughter, who is troubled with chronic hoarseness. However, they are nice people, attentive and not intrusive. I have developed into a perambulating walking-stick. The greater part of the day I am out in the air and at ten o’clock I go to bed. I read nothing, write less and am gradually working myself into that state of Nirvana which Buddhism regards as the consummation of human bliss.” And at the foot of the letter there is a teasing remark which apparently foreshadows coming events: “That little devil Lafargue is still plaguing me with his Proudhonism and I suppose he won’t be satisfied until I’ve knocked some sense into his Creole skull.”

Whilst Marx was still in Margate the first lightning flashes pierced the war clouds which had gathered over Germany. On the 8th of April Bismarck concluded an offensive alliance with Italy against Austria, and the next day he approached the Federal Diet with the request that a German parliament should be convened on the basis of the general franchise to discuss a reform of the League for presentation to the German governments. The attitude which Marx and Engels took up to these events reveals how far they had lost touch with the German situation. Their judgment vacillated. Referring to Bismarck’s proposal to convene a German parliament, Engels wrote on the 10th of April: “What an ass the fellow must be to believe that will help him in the least! If things really come to a head then for the first time in history future developments will depend on the attitude of Berlin. If the Berliners deliver their blow at the right moment then things may develop favourably – but who can rely on them?” Three days later he wrote again, but this time with extraordinarily clear foresight: “It looks as though the German bourgeoisie will agree to the proposal (the general franchise) after a little resistance, for, after all, Bonapartism is the real religion of the bourgeoisie. I am beginning to realize more and more clearly that the bourgeoisie is not cut out to rule directly, and that therefore where there is no oligarchy (like the one in England) prepared to govern in the interests of the bourgeoisie in return for liberal rewards, a Bonapartist semi-dictatorship is the normal form of bourgeois rule. Such a form advances the great material interests of the bourgeoisie even against the bourgeoisie, but refuses to give the latter a share in the government. On the other hand, such a dictatorship itself is compelled to further these material interests of the bourgeoisie against its will, and thus we now observe Monsieur Bismarck adopting the program of the Nationalverein. Carrying it out is, of course, quite another matter but he is hardly likely to come to grief on account of the German bourgeoisie.” Engels thought that Bismarck would fail because of the Austrian army. Benedek was in any case a better general than Prince Frederick Karl. Austria was strong enough to force Prussia to sue for peace, but Prussia was not strong enough to force Austria to do so, and therefore every Prussian success would be an invitation to Bonaparte to intervene.

In a letter to his new friend Doctor Kugelmann of Hanover, Marx described the situation in almost the same words. Whilst he was still a lad, in 1848, Kugelmann had been an enthusiastic supporter of Marx and Engels, and he had carefully collected all their writings, but it was not until 1862 that, thanks to Freiligrath’s mediation, he made the acquaintance of Marx and soon became one of his confidants. Marx subordinated himself to Engels’ judgment absolutely in all military questions and with a lack of criticism unusual for him.

Still more astonishing than his over-estimation of the Austrian army was Engels’ idea of the condition of the Prussian army. For he had just written about the army reform – the occasion of the Prussian constitutional conflict – and in this work he had shown far greater insight than the bourgeois democratic tub-thumpers. On the 25th of May he wrote: “If the Austrians are clever enough not to attack then the trouble in the Prussian army will certainly come to a head. The men were never so rebellious as they have proved themselves during this mobilization. Unfortunately we hear of only a small part of what is really happening, but even that is enough to show that an offensive war is impossible with such an army.” And on the 11th of June he wrote: “The Landwehr will be as dangerous to Prussia in this war as the Poles were in 1806, when they represented over a third of the army and disorganized everything, with the exception that this time the Landwehr will not disband after the defeat, but revolt.” That was written three weeks before the decisive battle of Königgrätz.

Königgrätz dispelled all misunderstandings immediately and the day after the battle Engels wrote: “What do you think of the Prussians? They followed up their success with enormous energy. Such a decisive battle all over in eight hours is unparalleled; under other circumstances it would have lasted two days, but the needle gun is a deadly weapon, and then the fellows fought with a bravura seldom seen in peace-time soldiers.” Marx and Engels might make mistakes and they often did so, but they never resisted the recognition of error when the events themselves compelled it. The Prussian victory was an unpleasant pill for them to swallow, but they made no attempt to avoid their medicine and on the 25th of July Engels, who still retained the leadership in this question, summed up the situation as follows: “The situation in Germany now seems fairly simple to me. From the moment Bismarck carried out his plan with the Prussian army and met with such colossal success, the development in Germany took such a decided trend in his direction that, like everyone else, we must now recognize accomplished facts whether we like them or not ... There is at least one good side to the matter and that is that it simplifies the situation and makes the revolution easier by abolishing brawling in petty capitals and will in any case accelerate development. After all, a German parliament is quite a different thing from a Prussian chamber. The whole petty-State particularism will be dragged into the movement, the worst localizing influences will be destroyed, and the parties will become really national instead of merely local.” And two days later Marx answered with dry composure: “I agree with you entirely that we must take the mess as it is. Still, it is pleasant to be at a distance during this first period of young love.”

At the same time Engels wrote, “Brother Liebknecht is spurring himself into fanatical pro-Austrianism,” and he did not mean this as praise. Liebknecht was obviously responsible for “an outburst of anger” from Leipzig which had appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung. This “prince-eating” paper had even trimmed its sails so far as to reproach Prussia for its shameful treatment of “the venerable Elector of Hesse” and its heart was warming to the poor blind Guelph. At the same time Schweitzer in Berlin was taking up the same attitude as Marx and Engels, and almost in the same words, and for this “opportunist policy” the memory of the unfortunate man still suffers from the moral indignation of those ponderous “Statesmen” who swear by Marx and Engels, but do not understand them.



6. The Geneva Congress

Despite the original plan, the first congress of the International had not taken place when the battle of Königgrätz decided the fate of Germany. It had been necessary to postpone the congress until September, although in the second year of its existence the organization had made much quicker progress than in the first.

Geneva began to develop into the most important centre of the movement on the Continent, and both the German Swiss and the Franco-Italian Swiss sections founded party organs. The German Swiss section issued Der Vorbote, a monthly publication founded and edited by the veteran revolutionary Becker, and even to-day its columns represent one of the most important sources of information concerning the First International. It first appeared in January, 1866, and styled itself the Central Organ of the German Language Group, for the German members of the International also regarded Geneva as their centre owing to the fact that the laws of Germany prevented the formation of a specifically German section, and for much the same reason the influence of the Franco-Italian Swiss section in Geneva extended into France.

The movement in Belgium, also issued a paper of its own entitled Le Tribune du Peuple and Marx recognized it as the official organ of the International equally with the two Geneva papers, but there were one or two papers issued in Paris and representing the cause of the workers in their own way which he did not recognize as official mouthpieces of the International. The cause of the International made good progress in France also, but it was more like a fire sweeping over stubble than a steady blaze. Owing to the complete absence of any freedom of the press or any right to meet, it was difficult to found any real centres of the movement, and the ambiguous toleration of the Bonapartist police tended to sap the energy of the workers rather than encourage it. Further, the dominating influence of Proudhonism was not favourable to any development of working-class organizational strength.

“Young France,” as the fugitives in Brussels and London styled themselves, made a deal of noise and trouble. In February, 1866, a French section of the International which had been founded in London violently opposed the General Council for having placed the Polish question on the agenda of the congress. Under the influence of Proudhonism its representatives asked how one could possibly think of opposing Russian influence by the restoration of Polish unity at a time when Russia was freeing the serfs, whilst the Polish aristocracy and clergy obstinately refused to do so. And at the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War the French members of the International caused the General Council a lot of trouble with what Marx described as their “Proudhonized-Stirnerism.” They announced that the nation as an idea was obsolete. The nations should be dissolved into little groups” which would then form an “association” in place of the State. “And this ‘individualization’ of humanity and the corresponding ‘mutualisme’ will proceed whilst in all countries history conveniently comes to a full stop and the whole world waits until the individuals are ripe to make a social revolution. They will then carry out this experiment and the rest of the world will be overwhelmed by the force of their example and will proceed to do the same.” This sarcasm was directed against Marx’s “very good friends” Lafargue and Longuet, who were later to become his sons-in-law, but who at the time were making themselves a nuisance as “apostles of Proudhon.”

Much to Marx’s satisfaction the main strength of the International was still in the English trade unions, and in a letter to Kugelmann on the 15th of January, 1866, he expresses delight at the fact that it had been possible to draw into the movement these, the only really big working-class organizations. He was particularly pleased with a monster meeting in favour of the reform of the franchise which had taken place a few weeks earlier in St. Martin’s Hall under the intellectual leadership of the International. In March, 1866, Gladstone’s Whig Cabinet brought in a Bill for electoral reform, but it proved too radical for a section of Gladstone’s own party, which went over to the Tories and caused the fall of the government and its replacement by a Tory Ministry with Disraeli as Prime Minister. When Disraeli then attempted to postpone the question of electoral reform indefinitely, the movement in its favour grew more and more vigorous. Writing to Engels on the 7th of July Marx declared: “The workers demonstrations in London, marvellous compared with anything we have seen in England since 1849, are purely the work of the International. Lucraft, for instance, the leader of the Trafalgar Square demonstration, is a member of our council.” At a meeting of 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square, Lucraft proposed a demonstration in Whitehall Gardens, “where we once chopped off the head of a King,” and shortly afterwards a great demonstration of 60,000 people in Hyde Park almost developed into an insurrection.

The trade unions freely recognized the services of the International in furthering the movement which was sweeping the country, and in Sheffield a conference of delegates representing all the big trade unions adopted a resolution: “That this conference fully recognizes the services of the International Workingmen’s Association in furthering fraternal solidarity between the workers of all countries and urgently recommends all the societies represented at its deliberations to affiliate to this body in the conviction that such affiliation is of great importance for the progress and welfare of the whole working class.” As a result of this resolution many trade unions then affiliated to the International, but although this was a great moral and political success it did not yield proportionate material advantages. It was left to the unions to pay what affiliation subscriptions they thought fit or none at all, and when they did decide to pay anything their contributions were extremely modest, for instance, the boot and shoemakers with 5,000 members paid an affiliation subscription of five pounds annually, the carpenters with 9,000 members paid two pounds annually, whilst the bricklayers with from 3,000 to 4,000 members paid only a pound.

However, Marx was very soon compelled to recognize that “the damned traditional character of all English movements” was making itself felt in the reform movement too. Before the trade unions had approached the bourgeois Radicals in connection with electoral reforms, and the more the movement promised to yield tangible fruits the closer these relations became. “Payments on account,” which would formerly have been rejected with great indignation, now appeared as acceptable prizes in the struggle. Marx missed the fiery spirit of the old Chartists and deeply regretted the incapacitY of the English to do two things at once, pointing out that the more progress the reform movement made, the cooler the trade union leaders became m our own movement,” and that “the reform movement in England, which was brought into being by us, has almost killed us.” A strong bulwark against the advance of this tendency was removed owing to the fact that Marx’s illness and his convalescence in Margate prevented him from intervening in person.

The Workman’s Advocate, a weekly paper which the conference of 1865 had raised to the dignity of an official organ of the International and which changed its name to The Commonwealth in February, 1866, caused him a lot of trouble and worry. He was a member of the management of the paper, which was compelled to fight ceaselessly against financial difficulties and was therefore dependent on the assistance of the bourgeois electoral reformers. He did his utmost to counteract this bourgeois influence and at the same time he had to compose the jealous disputes which arose in connection with the editorial work. For a time Eccarius was the editor of the paper and he published his famous polemic against John Stuart Mill in it. Marx rendered him much assistance in the writing of this work. In the end, however, Marx was unable to prevent The Commonwealth from degenerating “into a purely reform organ for the moment... partly for economic and partly for political reasons,” as he wrote to Kugelmann.

This general situation explains completely why he harboured lively misgivings concerning the coming congress of the International and feared that it would “expose us to European ridicule.” The French members insisted that the decision of the General Council to hold the congress in May should be adhered to and Marx wanted to go to Paris to convince them of the impossibility of this date, but Engels declared that the whole affair was not worth the risk of falling into the hands of the Bonapartist police where he, Marx, would be without protection. It was not so important whether the congress made any valuable decisions or not so long as a public scandal was avoided and that would be possible somehow. In a certain sense, of course – at least towards themselves – any such demonstration would be a failure, but it need not necessarily be one which would ridicule them in the eyes of Europe.

The matter was finally settled by the Geneva organization, which had not completed its preparations for the congress and therefore decided to postpone it until September, and this was agreed to everywhere except in Paris. Marx had no intention of attending the congress, for his scientific work no longer permitted any considerable interruption and he felt he was doing something more important for the working class than anything he might be able to do at the congress, but for all that he devoted very much of his time to assuring the best possible auspices for the congress. He drew up a memorandum for the London delegates and deliberately limited it to such points as would “permit immediate co-operation and understanding between the workers and serve the immediate needs of the class struggle and the organization of the workers as a class.” One can pay this memorandum the same compliment which Professor Beesly paid to the Inaugural Address: it sums up the immediate demands of the international proletariat more thoroughly and more strikingly than ever before in a few pages. The President of the General Council, Odger, and its General Secretary, Cremer, went to Geneva as the representatives of the Council, together with Eccarius and Jung, and it was on the two last named that Marx chiefly relied.

The congress took place from the 3rd to the 8th of September under the chairmanship of lung and in the presence of 60 delegates; Marx found that it had been “better than I expected, but he expressed himself bitterly about “the gentlemen from Paris.” Their heads were “full of the emptiest Proudhonist phrases. They babble about science and they are utterly ignorant. They scorn all revolutionary action, that is to say, action arising out of the class struggle, and all concentrated social movements, movements which can be carried out with political means (for instance, the legal limitation of the working day). Under the pretext of freedom and anti-governmentalism or anti-authoritarian-individualism these gentlemen, who have meekly tolerated sixteen years of the blindest despotism and are still tolerating it, actually preach a vulgar bourgeois economic system idealized a little by Proudhonism.” And so on in even harsher terms.

Marx’s judgment was severe, but a few years later Johann Philipp Becker, who was present at the congress and one of its foremost delegates, expressed himself even more harshly concerning the chaos which marked the sessions, except that he did not forget the Germans on account of the French, or the supporters of Schulze-Delitzsch on account of the Proudhonists: “How much politeness we had to waste on the good people in order to avoid with decency the danger of their enthusiasm running away with the congress.” The reports published at the time in Der Vorbote on the deliberations of the congress are written in a different tone and they must be read with all the critical faculties alert.

The French were relatively strong at the congress and they controlled about one-third of the mandates. In the upshot they did not achieve very much, but they spared no eloquence. Their proposal that only manual workers should be accepted as members of the International and that all others should be excluded was turned down, as was also their proposal to deal with the religious question in the program of the International, a rebuff which marked the end of this abortion. On the other hand, a fairly harmless resolution calling for the study of international credit was adopted. Its aim was to secure later on the founding of a central bank for the International along Proudhonist lines. Much more disagreeable was the adoption of a resolution, brought forward by Tolain and Fribourg, declaring that female labour represented a “principle of degeneration” and that a woman’s place was in the home. However, this resolution was opposed even by other French delegates, including Varlin, and it was adopted together with a resolution of the General Council on female and child labour which in effect killed it. For the rest, the French delegates succeeded in smuggling a little Proudhonism into the resolutions of the congress here and there, but although these blemishes which disfigured his hard work annoyed him, Marx did not fail to recognize that on the whole the congress had been fairly satisfactory.

Only in one point did he suffer a rebuff which might be considered painful and probably was, and that was in the Polish question. Thanks to his experience with the London conference, he had carefully worked out this point in the memorandum he drew up for the London delegates. He declared that the European working class must take up the question because the ruling classes suppressed it despite effusive enthusiasm for every other sort of nationalism, and because the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie regarded the threatening Asiatic power in the background as the final bulwark against the advancing working class. This power could be checked only by the restoration of Polish unity on a democratic basis. Whether Germany remained an outpost of the Holy Alliance or became an ally of republican France would depend on the solution of this question. So long as this great European question remained unsolved the working-class movement would be continually hampered, held up and interrupted in its development.

The English delegates supported the proposal vigorously, but it met with an opposition no less vigorous from the French delegates and a number of the Franco-Italian Swiss delegates. In the end Becker, who had supported the resolution but was anxious to avoid a split on the question, put forward a compromise resolution declaring that the International was opposed to any form of rule by violence and that therefore it would strive for the abolition of Russian imperialist influence in Europe and for the restoration of Polish independence on a social democratic basis, and this evasive solution was adopted. Apart from this, the English memorandum triumphed all along the line. The Provisional Rules were adopted with one or two alterations and no debate at all took place on the Inaugural Address, which thenceforth was invariably referred to in the decisions and proclamations of the International as a fundamental official document.

The General Council was re-elected with its seat in London and it was instructed to collect detailed statistics on the situation of the working classes all over the world and to issue reports as often as its means allowed on all matters of interest to the International. In order to provide it with the necessary funds the congress decided that every member of the International should be assessed 30 centimes for the coming year and it recommended that a regular annual subscription of one half penny or one penny should be paid by all members in addition to the fee for the membership card.

The most important programmatic announcements of the congress were its decisions concerning legislation for labour protection and the trade unions. It accepted the principle of a struggle for labour protection legislation and pointed out that “by compelling the adoption of such laws the working class will not consolidate the ruling powers, but, on the contrary, it will be turning that power which is at present used against it into its own instrument.” With general legislation it would be able to obtain what it would be useless to attempt to obtain by isolated and individual efforts. The congress recommended the shortening of the working day as a necessary condition without which all the other efforts of the proletariat in the struggle for emancipation must fail. The shortening of the working day was necessary in order to restore the physical energy and health of the workers and to give them the possibility of intellectual development, social intercourse and social and political activities. As the legal maximum working-day the congress proposed eight hours, the working time to be arranged in such a way as to comprise only the actual working hours and reasonable pauses for meals. This maximum eight hour day should apply to all adult workers, both men and women, adults being all persons having completed their eighteenth year. Night work was condemned on principle as dangerous to the health of the workers, unavoidable exceptions to be laid down by law. Women workers should be strictly excluded from night work and from all forms of work harmful to the female constitution or morally objectionable for the female sex.

The congress regarded the tendency of modern industry to draw children and young persons of both sexes into the process of social production as salutary and legitimate progress, although it condemned as revolting the form in which this took place in capitalist society. In any reasonable system of society, it declared, each child would become a productive worker from its ninth year on, whilst at the same time no adult person would be excepted from the general law of nature which prescribed that in order to eat a man must first work, and furthermore all men should work not only with their brains, but also with their hands. In the prevailing system of society it was desirable to divide children and young people into three categories and treat them accordingly: children from 9 to 13 years old, children from 13 to 15 years, and young people from 15 to 17 years old. The working hours of the first category should not exceed two per day, whether in household or workshop, of the second category not more than four hours, and of the third category not more than six hours, with a break of one hour in the working time of this last category for meals and recreation. Productive labour on the part of children and young persons should be permitted only when combined with educational training, including mental, physical and technical training, giving them instruction in the general scientific principles of all processes of production and at the same time acquainting them with the practical use of the simpler forms of tools.

With regard to the trade unions the congress decided that their activity was not only legitimate, but necessary. The trade unions were a means of using the only social power of the proletariat, namely its numbers, against the centralized social power of capitalism, and so long as the capitalist mode of production existed it would not be possible to do without trade unions. On the contrary, the trade unions should generalize their activities by establishing international connections. By consciously opposing the ceaseless excesses of capitalism they would unconsciously become the organizational centre for the working class in the same way as the mediaeval communes had become such a centre for the rising bourgeoisie. Conducting a ceaseless guerrilla warfare in the everyday struggle between capital and labour, the trade unions would become still more important as a lever for the organized abolition of wage-labour. In the past the trade unions had concentrated their activities too exclusively on the immediate struggle against capital, but in the future they ought not to hold themselves aloof from the general political and social movement of their class. Their influence would grow stronger to the extent that the great masses of the workers would realize that their aim was not narrow and selfish, but directed to securing the general emancipation of the down-trodden millions.

Shortly after the congress in Geneva, and in the spirit of the above resolution, Marx took a step from which he hoped great things. Writing to Kugelmann on the 13th of October, 1866, he declared: “The London Trades Council (its secretary is our President Odger) is now considering a proposal that it should declare itself the English section of the International. Should it adopt this proposal then, in a sense the control of the working class will come into our hands and we shall be able to drive the movement forward still more effectively.” However, the council did not adopt the proposal, and with all its friendliness to the International it decided to maintain its organizational independence, and if the historians of the trade union movement are right, it even refused to permit a representative of the International to attend its sessions in order to report as quickly as possible on all Continental strikes and labour troubles.

Even in the very first years of its existence the leaders of the International could see that great successes were ahead, but also that these successes had their definite limits. However, for the moment the movement was entitled to congratulate itself on its successes, and Marx notes with lively satisfaction in his great work, which he was then within an ace of completing, that a congress of American workers, held in Baltimore at the same time as the Geneva congress, had also proclaimed the eight hour day as the first demand of the workers which must be fulfilled on the way to the complete emancipation of labour from the chains of capitalism.

White labour, he declared, could never emancipate itself so long as black labour was branded, but the first fruit of the American Civil War for the abolition of slavery was the agitation for the eight hour day, a movement which raced from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California with the seven-league boots of the modern locomotive.


Last updated on 27.2.2004