Karl Radek

The Birth of the First International


Source: preface to a pamphlet published in Sydney by the Communist Party of Australia in 1934: Fifteen Years of the Communist International.
Transcribed: by Steve Painter.

Seventy years have passed since the day when the First International Workingmen’s Association was founded at a public meeting, which was attended mainly by French and English workers. The occasion for the founding of the International was provided by the protest movement of the French and English proletariat against the suppression of the Polish insurrection in 1863, and the movement for the organising of assistance for the textile workers who suffered from the cotton crisis arising from the American Civil War.

But this was only the outward occasion. The reason for the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association was a deeper one. The crisis of the years 1857 and 1858, which put an end to the boom following the discovery of gold in California and forming the basis of the counter-revolution, brought into movement the working masses who had been crushed in the year 1849. In spite of the repressive police regime of Napoleon III, in spite of the split-up character of the British Labor Movement, caused by the decline of chartism, in spite of the fact that in Germany there existed only individual groups which had remained faithful to the ideas of the Communist League, the Labor Movement again raised its head.

The capitalist world was passing not only through an economic, but also a political crisis. In Western Europe the question of the national unity of Germany and Italy was on the order of the day. In Eastern Europe, Tsarism, which had been shaken by the Crimean War, was seeking for means to adapt itself to rising Russian capitalism. In America the war between the capitalist North and the slave-owning South was being prepared. The conflicts of the capitalist world, together with the misery called forth by the economic crisis, began to rouse the workers from the torpor into which they had fallen since the defeat of 1849.

Marx immediately grasped the historical importance of the confused tendencies to create an international association of workers, which became apparent among the English and French workers. These tendencies were represented by people who had nothing in common with modern Communism, as it had been created and founded by Marx before the revolution of 1848. The initiative for founding the International Workingmen’s Association in England was taken by the trade unionists who, out of fear of the competition of cheap labor attempted to get into contact with workers of the Continent and Humanists from the bourgeois intelligentsia who were sympathetic to Labor. The representatives of the French workers were for the most part Proudhollists, who aimed at saving the working class without a political fight and rejected the idea of the revolutionary seizure of power. The Italian advocates of an international association still followed in the wake of the petty-bourgeois national movement, led by Mazzini. In Germany a struggle was proceeding in the Labor Movement between the followers of Lassalle, who were endeavouring to make use, in an opportunist manner, of the fight between the Liberals and the Bismarck government, and the workers who followed in the wake of the Liberal bourgeoisie. Bismarck was not averse to the unification of Germany under the leadership of the Junker government in order to win the sympathy of the working class.

Marx perceived that after a long period of calm a new wave of the workers’ movement was rising. He took part in the most energetic manner in the first attempt to create an International, in order, supported by the revolutionary tendencies of the working class which had increased numerically and was becoming industrialised, to lead it forwards. When Marx, before the revolution of 1848, founded the Communist League and unfolded the banner of socialist revolution, he reckoned on a rapid development of the democratic revolutionary movement into the socialist revolution and endeavoured to create a basis for the revolutionary movements of the proletariat. He could not commence with the unfolding of a completely worked-out proletarian programme and the creation of a Communist Party. He did not leave out of sight the possibility of revolutionary events in the near future. Nevertheless, he had to proceed from the fact that the ruling classes, for the time being, had prospects of solving those tasks which the revolution of 1848 had not solved. He had to reckon with the slowing down of the pace of development, and therefore his main tasks consisted in separating the workers’ movement from the bourgeois democratic movement and overcoming those ideologies which prevented the proletariat from coming forward independently on the basis of this workers’ movement.

“Uniting the Labor Movement of various countries, striving to direct into the channel of united activities the various forms of the non-proletarian, pre-Marxist socialism (Mazzini, Proudhon, Bakunin, Liberal trade unionism in England, Lassallean Right vacillations in Germany, etc.), fighting against the theories of all these sects and schools, Marx hammered out the common tactics of the proletarian struggle of the working class – one and the same in the various countries.” (The emphasis in this and the following quotations is mine. – KR).

That is how Lenin, in his little work The Teachings of Karl Marx, defined the line of procedure of the founder of modern Communism at the inception of the First International. In the Inaugural Address drawn up by Marx on the occasion of the founding of the First International, we clearly see this tactical line of rallying the forces of the proletariat. Marx gives at the commencement an exact picture of the worsening situation of the proletariat, basing his statements on official documents and on facts which no worker could deny. From these facts he draws the fundamental conclusion:–

“Everywhere the broad masses of the working class have sunk deeper, at least to the same extent to which the classes which stand higher than they have climbed up the social ladder. Neither the perfecting of machinery, nor the application of science to production, neither inventions in the sphere of means of communication nor new colonies, neither emigration nor new markets, neither free trade nor all this taken together will abolish the misery of the toiling masses. On the present faulty basis every further development of the productive forces of labor must intensify the social contradictions and sharpen the social antagonisms.

This thesis should later cause the class-conscious workers to arrive at the conclusion of the necessity of the proletarian revolution. But Marx did not hurry with this conclusion. He turned to those forms of the Labor Movement which were most widespread in England at that time and had called forth great hopes among a part of the working class of Germany and of France. This was the Co-operative Movement, which embraced millions in England, which in France was supported by the Proudhonists, which in Germany had been declared by the followers of Lassalle to be the chief means for the emancipation of the working class. Marx emphasised that the development of co-operative factories had proved the possibility of production on modern lines without capitalists, and this was “a considerable victory of the political economy of Labor over the political economy of property.” But at the same time he pointed out to the workers that it is impossible to abolish capitalism by means of the Co-operative Movement.

While calling upon the working class of the whole world to combine their efforts and to create an international brotherhood of the workers, he pointed out to the workers, precisely at the moment of the founding of the First International, that they must not confine themselves to the fight of improving their own position, for creating workers’ parties which would be capable of fighting for power in the future. He called upon the working class to interfere in the international policy of the bourgeoisie, which is a means of enslaving the masses. He called upon them “to make themselves familiar with the secrets of international politics, to follow the diplomatic activity of their governments, and where necessary to oppose it with all the means at their disposal.”

Marx advocated that the proletariat should unite on the basis of those principles which alone are capable of guaranteeing a real union – on the basis of the principles of modern Communism.

If one follows the history of the activity of Marx in the First International, the leadership of which he immediately took into his powerful hands, one perceives everywhere this cautious approach aiming at rallying the broadest possible masses of the workers, combined with a fundamental ruthlessness which could make concessions in words but never in principles. Whether it is the agrarian question, the attitude to parliamentary elections, or to revolt, the fight for power, Marx always fought all who endeavoured to drag the working class back or land it in the quagmire of Bakuninist putschism, Proudhonist repudiation of politics, or Lassallean bargaining with the Junker reaction. One can in a certain sense describe these tactics of Marx as united front tactics. While pursuing these tactics Marx never for a moment forgot that the aim of these tactics should be to separate the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, from petty bourgeois tendencies and to weld it into a force capable of waging the fight for power.

While Marx was able to perceive the immediate interests of the proletariat, whilst he passionately supported every strike of the workers, at the same time, when circumstances demanded it, he knew how to go over quickly from these peaceful means and forms of the movement to revolutionary solutions. The war of 1871 produced the Paris Commune. Marx foresaw the defeat of the Commune, but this did not prevent him, when the ruling classes compelled the Paris workers to take up arms, not only from standing at the side of the workers, but from supporting the fight with great enthusiasm and defending it before the whole world.

Marx was able to see in the Paris Commune, which was calumniated by the bourgeoisie, the first step to the coming proletarian world revolution. He attentively studied its experiences in order to deliver them to the future generation. The importance which this study of the first attempt of the proletariat to seize power and the first brief experience the proletariat had after seizing power was shown by the socialist October revolution of 1917, in which the gifted scholar and follower of Marx, Lenin, made Marx’s analysis of the lessons of the Commune one of the main pillars of the strategy of the Russian and international proletariat.

The First International fell because in many countries (Spain, Italy, South France) the economic development had not yet created the conditions for the rise of proletarian parties capable of welding together the ranks of the proletariat, achieving new positions and developing the forces for the coming fight for power.

The artisans, the lumpen-proletarian elements, which were capable of outbreaks of despair but not of stubborn fight, went over to Bakunin. Bakunin disintegrated the First International The savage persecution which raged against the working class of France after the suppression of the Commune delivered blows to the International not only in France. The Commune called forth a panic within the bourgeoisie and a persecution of the Labor Movement in all other countries.

The opportunist elements who were at the head of the English trade unions were intimidated by the bourgeois slanders and left the International. The Labor Movement in Germany, which had passed through the period of faction fights between the followers of Lassalle and the Eisenach group, was not yet capable of taking, up the task of strengthening the International. The First International proved to be an historical experiment.

“This experiment could not be successful so long as the socialist parties of the various countries were not welded together and consolidated, but the activity of the First International rendered the workers’ movement in all countries a great service and left traces behind it.” (Lenin: Collected Works)

The Franco-German war in 1871 became an historical dividing line. It brought to an end the period of the national-revolutionary, bourgeois-democratic movement in Western Europe. At the same time united Italy and united Germany arose. Capitalism consolidated itself, increased in extent by industrialising backward countries. The workers’ movement consolidated itself, workers’ parties arose, the proletariat organised itself on the basis of slogans and tactics which had been worked out by Marx.

Marx did not live to see the rise of the Second International which aroused such joyful hopes in his comrade in arms, Friedrich Engels, during whose lifetime the Second International to some extent fulfilled its revolutionary task, even if already at that time the opportunism of Vollmar. Brousse, Hyndman and others had commenced to eat its way into it. The commencement of the epoch of imperialism, which bred the labor aristocracy, and the labor bureaucracy, led to the full growth of opportunism. The mass organisations of the proletariat which arose under the banner of the Second International not only proved incapable of developing the revolutionary tendencies of the proletariat, but in the hands of the majority of the leaders of the Second International became the best means of throttling these tendencies. And only the Bolshevik Party, which right from the first moment of its existence fought against opportunism, by restoring, under the leadership of Lenin, the real teachings of Marx and Engels, became a force which was capable not only of taking up the fight against international imperialism, but also of taking on the task of organising the Communist International. At the moment of the collapse of the Second International, Lenin; in a letter written to Shlapnikov on October 17, 1914, said:–

“One must exert every effort to uphold the just hatred of the class-conscious workers for the hideous conduct of the Germans, one must draw from this hatred political conclusions against opportunism and against every concession to opportunism. This is an international task. It devolves upon us, there is nobody else. One cannot shirk it.” (Lenin: Collected Works, volume XVIII, page 74.)

After the Bolsheviki, under Lenin’s leadership, had seized power, they raised once again the flag of the International Workingmen’s Association. At the time of the founding of the Third International, Lenin wrote:–

“The First International laid the foundation of the proletarian fight for socialism.

“The Second International was an epoch of preparation of the ground for a broad mass extension of the movement in a number of countries.

“The Third International gathered the fruits of the work of the Second International, discarded its opportunist, social-chauvinist, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois rubbish, and commenced to realise the dictatorship of the proletariat. The international association of parties which is leading the revolutionary movement of the world, the movement of the proletariat for the overthrow of the yoke of capital, has now a basis which is firmer than any that ever existed before; some Soviet Republics which embody on an international scale the dictatorship of the proletariat, its victory over capitalism.” (Lenin: Collected Works)

Fifteen years have passed since Lenin wrote these words. The combined efforts of the international bourgeoisie succeeded in overthrowing the Soviet Republics in Hungary, Bavaria and Finland. But the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics exists as one of the most powerful states in the world. With the help of the dictatorship of the proletariat it has laid the foundation of socialism, it is erecting the edifice of socialism, and it has created a powerful Red Army for the protection of this great work of construction. On the 70th anniversary of the founding of the First International, which called upon the proletariat to penetrate all the secrets of the foreign policy of the bourgeoisie, this international bourgeoisie, organised in the League of Nations, was compelled to reckon with the strength of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. In Asia, the Chinese Communists are at the head of large Soviet territories and are leading the emancipation fight of millions of toilers. The Communist International has created in the whole world cadres of revolutionary workers who have acquired, mastered the teachings of Marx and Lenin, who have already acquired experience in the fight against the bourgeoisie and against the social-democracy – cadres of fighters who are fighting unswervingly in face of the most savage terror.

And precisely because the rise of the Communist International coincides with the commencement of the period of the proletarian revolution, Lenin was able from the first moment of the activity of the Comintern to unfurl the banner of Marxism-Leninism and openly inscribe on it the slogans of civil war and the dictatorship of the proletariat. These slogans immediately rallied round them millions and millions of workers. Whilst Marx’s concern was to rally the first detachments of the working class, Lenin’s concern was to erect barriers against those opportunists who, in order not to lose contact with the masses, were prepared to enter the Communist International.

The four years of economic crisis which is developing on the background of the post-war crisis of the capitalist system, the bankruptcy of the social-democracy, the victory of fascism in Germany, the danger of a new imperialist world war, the building up of socialism in the Soviet Union, the strength of the country which, under the leadership of Stalin, is realising the teachings of Marx and Lenin, all this makes the Comintern a great lighthouse for the international working class and the colonial peoples.

Last updated on 18.10.2011