History of the First International. PART ONE. 1864-1872

Chapter Four
First Steps of The International; The London Conference of 1865

AT the outset, the historical significance of the International was not fully appreciated either by its bourgeois enemies or by many of its adherents.

The liberal bourgeoisie did not at first regard the International as a danger, or as an organisation to be dreaded. Moreover, the liberals hoped to do again what they had done in the past, namely to turn the awakening of the toiling masses to account on behalf of their own struggle for bourgeois political freedoms. Even when, in the Address, reference was made to the need that the proletariat should depend upon its own forces in the struggle for complete emancipation, the liberal bourgeoisie regarded this as only a voicing of its own universal paean of “self-help,” a doctrine which involved the handing over of the working class to the dominion of capital. Characteristic in this respect are the remarks of the liberal economist Laveleye:

“The manifesto contained nothing alarming. Michel Chevalier or John Stuart Mill, who had both spoken of the principle of association in similar terms, might have signed it. The International also affirmed that ‘the emancipation of the workers must be achieved by the workers themselves.’ This idea seemed an application of the principle of ‘self-help'; it enlisted for the new association, even in France, the sympathies of many distinguished men who little suspected how it was to be interpreted later on."[47]

In his well-known book on the International, Fribourg, one of the Parisian working-class leaders of that date, and one of the founders of the organisation, speaks of the sympathy with which the first steps of the new body were greeted by members of the French bourgeoisie. He writes:

“Quite a number of individual members joined the International, nearly all the survivors of the republican societies that had been suppressed by the imperial authorities came to put down their names came to put down their names at the Rue des Gravilliers [the headquarters of the French section of the International]. Doctors, journalists, manufacturers, and army officers, gave their support ... Not a few persons of note in the political world formally appended their names to the rules and constitution of the International. Among these pioneers may be mentioned: Jules Simon, author of L'Ouvrière, L'Ecole, Le Travail, etc.; Henri Martin, the widely read historian; Gustave Chaudey, active fellow-worker of P. J. Proudhon, killed by Raoul Rigault; Corbon, sometime vice-president of the Constituent Assembly of 1848; Charles Beslay; and a number of others whose membership lapsed after a while ... At the same time, through the instrumentality of Fribourg, the International was brought into contact with the Freemasons of Paris, and many of these latter were strongly sympathetic towards the new movement."'[48]

In Switzerland, certain essentially bourgeois leaders adhered to the International from the outset. For instance, there was Coullery, a physician of humanitarian views, who ultimately tried to induce the internationalists to enter into an electoral alliance with the Swiss conservatives against the radicals. These last, in their turn, were not slow to make advances. In Geneva they wanted to use the working-class internationalists as tools in the struggle with the conservatives for the sweets of office. This was after a strike in the building trade in Geneva had shown the strength of the new organisation. Thereupon:

“The radical bourgeoisie of Geneva began to coquet with the International, which was regarded as a force competent to give aid in the parliamentary struggle against the conservatives. The radical organisation known as the Society for the Emancipation of Thought and the Individual resolved at its general Meeting to show sympathy towards the International and to send delegates to the international congress of the workers. In actual fact, Catalan, a journalist, attended the Brussels congress as delegate of this Society."[49]

The existence of such relationships with the bourgeoisie in the early days will not surprise us when we recall that, even in working-class circles, an understanding of the immediate tasks and the historical significance of the International was not secured all in a moment. The British workers were inclined to regard the International as merely an organisation for continuing the trade-union movement, and for enlarging its scope, mainly for providing help in the struggle with the employers by means of strikes. This was a narrow outlook, but at any rate it assigned a fighting role to the International, and was therefore preferable by far to the views of the Proudhonists, who were at that date the leaders of the French section of the International. They looked upon the International Workingmen’s Association as a sort of academy or synagogue, where Talmudists or similar experts could “investigate” the workers’ problem; where in the spirit of Proudhon they could excogitate means for an accurate solution of the problem, without being disturbed by the stresses of a political campaign. Thus Fribourg, voicing the opinions of the Parisian group of the Proudhonists (Tolain and Co.) assured his readers that “the International was the greatest attempt ever made in modern times to aid the proletariat towards the conquest, by peaceful, constitutional, and moral methods, of the place which rightly belongs to the workers in the sunshine of civilisation."[50]

Such persons as Fribourg completely misunderstood the guiding ideas of the movement in which they were participating, the movement of which, in a purely formal sense, they had been co-founders. The activities of the first workers’ group of Parisian internationalist Proudhonists, and their general outlook, persistently exhibited, as we shall see later, a reactionary character, proving in this respect retrograde in comparison with the bourgeois thought of that epoch. If, none the less, the International in France promptly threw off the fetters of reactionary ideology, and if the French section took a leading place in the history of the Association, this was because from the very outset these had been adopted the safe and salutary principle of the independence of the workers. The masses, learning by experience, speedily outgrew their leaders. Though they remained with the flag, these leaders soon came to declare that all the subsequent activities of the International amounted to a mere perversion of its primary aims, and that the cause of the perversion was the influence of bourgeois politicians in its counsels. This spirit permeates the record of Fribourg, who parrots all the foolish insinuations of the police departments throughout Europe and repeats the police-inspired tales of such bourgeois historians of the International as Testut and Villetard.

As a matter of fact, the founders and inspirers of the International Workingmen’s Association knew perfectly well what they were about when they appealed to the proletariat, to its class consciousness and to its class instinct. The further development of the International could not but disappoint those bourgeois liberals who had sympathetically greeted the first steps of the new organisation; necessarily, too, it disappointed such short-sighted leaders of the working-class movement as the Parisian Proudhonists, who had helped in the foundation.

The General Council invited all workers’ organisations to affiliate to the International, leaving it to these organisations to decide for themselves the scale of their contributions. At first the enrolment of members went slowly even in England, though in that country more general support was given than elsewhere. The nature and extent of this support will be fully considered in the next chapter. In addition, the International was joined by a number of societies of foreign workers (chiefly Germans) resident in London.

After a time, the influence of the International began to spread on the Continent as well. In the German-speaking lands (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), about 50,000 copies of the Address and Provisional Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association were circulated. In Switzerland a branch of the International was formed. Thanks to the unwearied activities of the veteran revolutionist, J. P. Becker, the influence of this branch rapidly extended, so that quite a number of local groups were formed, and many pre-existent working-class societies were affiliated to the International. In France, Germany, and Belgium, the notion that it was essential for the workers to he affiliated to the International rapidly gained ground. Furthermore, a decisive role was played by strikes, in conjunction with appeals to the General Council for information and help.

The General Council had among its members representatives of Belgium, Spain, and the United States of America. It endeavoured to utilise the notable political events of the day in order to attract the attention of the broad masses of the people to the International and its aims. Meetings were held in connection with the Polish nationalist movement. There was a demonstration in memory of the victims of the June days in Paris during the revolution of 1848. When Abraham Lincoln was re-elected president, a congratulatory address was sent to the American people; and after Lincoln’s assassination, a message of condolence was despatched in the name of the International. As we know, this was in line with what had been the policy of the Fraternal Democrats and the International Committee.

It must he admitted that the progress of the movement was less rapid than had at first been expected. In view of this fact, the General Council held that it would be inexpedient to hold a congress in the year 1865.[51] There were various reasons for this decision. First of all, the Belgian government was so reactionary, that the very possibility of holding a congress in Brussels was open to question. Moreover, at the outset there would have been a clash with the backward section of the working-class leaders concerning the fundamental principles underlying the tasks of the organisation. In view of all these considerations, instead of the statutory congress, there was summoned the first conference of the International, which sat in London from the 25th to the 29th of September, 1865. Except for a number of trade-union problems, the agenda of the conference was entirely devoted to questions of international politics, such as: the disastrous influence of the Russian autocracy upon Europe; the restoration of Poland; standing armies, etc. From the start, this combination of questions concerning the home policy of the proletariat with those concerning its foreign policy was characteristic of the international movement of the working class.

At the London Conference, Britain was represented by the radical trade-unionist leaders with whose names we are already familiar, namely, Odger, Howell, Cremer, Eccarius, etc.; France, by Tolain, Limousin, Fribourg, Varlin (who was destined in the near future to play a notable part in the French working-class movement, and ultimately to perish during the suppression of the Commune of Paris), etc.; Switzerland, by Dupleix, for the French-speaking section of Geneva, and J. P. Becker, for the German-speaking sections; Belgium, by Cesar de Paepe, who had been a doctor, but who subsequently, in order to “go down among the masses,” became a compositor; Poland by Bobrzynski. The national groups of refugees in London were represented as follows: the Germans, by Lessner and Schapper, the sometime leaders of the Communist League; the Italians, by Major Wolff. In addition there were present corresponding members of the General Council: Dupont for France; Jung for Switzerland; and Marx for Germany. With few exceptions those present were experienced warriors in the revolutionary and socialist struggle, well fitted to form the general staff of the youthful International.

The reports of the delegates from the various countries made it perfectly clear that, with the possible exception of Britain, the working-class movement everywhere was still in an embryonic condition. Not only were there lacking strong and well-knit organisations, not only was there a grievous shortage of funds, not only was there a complete absence of a labour press.[52] In addition, there did not as yet exist a sufficiently clear conception of the problems confronting the working-class movement in general or the International in particular. Only in Britain could there be noted the transference of the movement from the pure industrial struggle of the trade unionists into the political field, the political struggle here taking the form mainly of a demand for an extension of the franchise. In France, where the minds of the workers were dominated by the teachings or the petty-bourgeois socialist, Proudhon, and by the mutualist ideas of that writer, additional obstacles existed in the corm of the restrictions that were imposed upon the freedom of the press, the right of public meeting, and the right of organisation. In Belgium, even among the most advanced workers, hazy ideas prevailed, so confused that there was no real grasp of the significance of the International’s campaign on behalf of the liberation of Poland[53] – and, perhaps, without injustice, the same charge might have been brought against the French workers. In Switzerland matters were in somewhat better shape; but even there the immaturity of the movement may be inferred from the fact that Becker, with the air of one announcing a revelation from on high, spoke of the need for founding co-operatives, mutualist banks, and friendly societies.

The conference decided that the first congress of the International was to be held at Geneva in May, 1866. (Subsequently the Geneva Congress was postponed until September.) It was further decided that only delegates officially representing an organisation were to have the right of voting at the congress. The discussion of the financial problem disclosed the weak point of the International, and especially of the General Council. There were no funds either for propaganda or for organisation. The first year’s income of the International was stated to have been a little over £30! For the expenses of the Conference and for the organisation of propaganda it was resolved to inaugurate a sort of international fund, and only in this way was the necessary £150 forthcoming.[54] The British journal “The Miners’ and Workmen’s Advocate”)[55] was appointed the official organ of the International.

The London Conference lead made it possible to secure general agreement among the fundamental question as to the main function of the International, and as a result the organisation received more extensive support from the workers on the Continent. The Association had already made considerable headway in Britain; now it began to forge ahead likewise in the Latin countries, and especially in France and in Switzerland. By the time of the first congress, branches had been formed not only in Paris, but also in a number of provincial towns: Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Saint Etienne, Limoges, Rouen, etc. In Paris, there also existed a Central Committee (a self-appointed body, it is true); and a number of working-class organisations, partly trade unionist, and partly co-operative, had been formed to carry on propaganda on behalf of the International.

At this time Switzerland began to play a more prominent role in the International than Britain, where the International Workingmen’s Association had been founded. Switzerland came to the front for two reasons. First of all, a considerable measure of political freedom prevailed in the Swiss Republic. In the second place, owing to the central position of Switzerland, a great many workers of different nationalities had settled there, and in especial it was the home of many veteran political refugees. With the approval of the General Council it was arranged that the German-speaking section of the Genevese Central Committee (which had been organised by Becker) should act as the organising centre of the International for Germany, so that German and Austrian working-class organisations desiring to join the International had to adhere to the Genevese Central Committee.[56] The French (“Romand”) Swiss section in Geneva became, in its turn, the organising centre for the French Jura, and its influence extended as far as Marseilles and Lyons. (This was subsequently the field of Bakunin’s activities.) Especially successful was the work of the veteran J. P. Becker. Cleverly combining political propaganda with the organisation of friendly society activities, he succeeded in securing the adhesion to the International of nearly all the working-class organisations then existing in Germany, Austria, and German Switzerland. Thus a notable proportion of the Swiss trade unions joined the International. At this time there were beginning among the Swiss workers attempts to participate in the political strangle. These attempts were at first unsuccessful, and their only effect was (as we shall see shortly) to provoke strife in the youthful movement. At this time Coullery, who was nothing more than a bourgeois democrat, played a notable part in the International’s activities in Swiss Jura. He had joined the International at the very outset, when many persons had still failed to realise the purely proletarian character of the organisation. Coullery was instrumental in founding numerous sections of the International in the towns of Swiss Jura. He established a newspaper of his own known as “Voix de l'Avenir” [The Voice of the Future] which was published at La Chaux-de-Fonds; its first number bears the date December 31, 1865. The German-speaking Swiss members of the International likewise had an organ of their own. This was known as “Der Vorbote” [The Forerunner],[57] and was edited by J. P. Becker. Its publication began on January 1, 1866. It was destined to play a notable part in the history of the International wherever the German tongue was spoken.

In Italy, although the working class was almost entirely engrossed in the struggle for national unity, and was predominantly influenced by the bourgeois-democratic propaganda of Mazzini, sympathy for the International was already being displayed.

In Spain, a number of co-operative societies and friendly societies were formed; and at Barcelona, the chief industrial centre of the country, a paper entitled “El Obrero” [The Worker] was published.

Finally, in the United States, a workers’ congress held at Chicago on the eve of the Geneva Congress, resolved on August 20, 1866, to enter into close relations with the International.