History of the First International. PART ONE. 1864-1872
THE prospects of the international Workingmen’s Association seemed favourable. At the mere news of the existence of this centre of aggregation for proletarian strength – of this organisation which was not yet fully aware of its own significance – the hearts of the workers began to beat more freely, and expiring hopes of deliverance were revived. But the International was faced with arduous tasks. Not only had it to undertake duties of an organisational character in order to unite the scattered forces that were just awakening in the rank and file of the movement. In addition, much educative work was requisite in order to elucidate the historic mission of the “fourth estate,” to purge proletarian ideology from false views, and to get rid of the antiquated methods that still survived during the first stage of the working-class movement.
In most countries that movement was only beginning. So far, it had hardly emerged from chaos. For this reason, it was perpetually being influenced by bourgeois ideology, by liberal and democratic ideas. To say nothing of Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, in Germany itself the working-class movement had not yet broken away from the bourgeois parties. Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, who were soon to lead the Social Democratic Party, were still working within the framework of bourgeois democracy. A workers’ party independent of other political parties was now being organised throughout Germany by the followers of the recently deceased Ferdinand Lassalle (see above). This went to the opposite extreme. So intense was its hatred of the liberals, that it was willing to coquet with the conservatives.
In Britain, the working-class movement continued in the main to display a purely trade-union character. The chief reason why the British workers were interested in the International was that they hoped this organisation would be able to prevent the import of cheap labour from the Continent during strikes. As far as the political struggle was concerned, the British working class was once more becoming involved in it. But the leaders did not look upon it as a struggle for the conquest of political power in order that society might be reconstructed upon socialist foundations. They merely regarded the political struggle as one for the extension of the franchise in order that the workers might be enabled to free their trade unions from interference by the bourgeoisie, parliament, and the law courts.
Even during this period, one characterised by a general political revival, the attention of the British workers was, as it had been in the sixties, almost exclusively centred upon the industrial struggle. They were interested in political matters only in so far as this was necessary to strengthen their legal position for the industrial struggle. Especially were they concerned about the definitive legalisation of labour organisations. In the struggle with the growing strike movement of the sixties, the capitalists had had recourse to lock-outs, and had declared war on the trade unions. The bourgeois law-courts held that these organisations had no claim to legal protection, and on this ground treasurers who had embezzled trade-union funds were actually acquitted!
The workers decided to struggle for the freedom of their organisations. Bourgeois sympathisers with the trade-union movement were summoned in aid, and in 1871 the Liberal Government was compelled to pass an act legalising the trade unions. But at the same time it passed another measure (the Criminal Law Amendment Act) establishing severe penalties for the use of violence, or threats, against either masters or workers who refused to abide by trade union decisions. Whilst strikes were technically legalised, all the acts on the part of the workers which could make a strike effective were still penalised. But the workers continued to agitate, and in 1875 the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1871 was formally and unconditionally repealed. At the same time, other measures were passed which involved a complete recognition of the legal status of the trade unions and their methods. The right of combination had been finally secured.
Simultaneously with this struggle for the right of combination, there had occurred a revival of interest in political matters. The British workers began to agitate for an extension of the franchise, and to demand that independent working-class candidates should be run for parliament. This movement in Britain coincided in point of time with similar movements in France, and in Germany, but on the Continent different motives were at work. The British movement, however, was essentially a bourgeois-democratic one; it lacked the class-conscious proletarian spirit; its aims were not, as had been the aims of the Chartist agitation, the achievement of the social revolution; on the contrary, it aimed at nothing beyond opportunist and narrowly practical gains. The political organisations that were now formed to promote the agitation for an extension of the franchise had a like character. The demand for working-class representatives in parliament meant nothing more than that these representatives should be persons well informed concerning the laws affecting the workers, and in especial, well informed concerning trade-union matters; they must be competent, in case of need, to voice the sentiments of the organised workers who formed the working-class aristocracy.
The very small number of members of the working class who, soon after this, found their way into the House of Commons, were thralls to the liberals, and advocated a purely bourgeois policy. The first working-class candidates nominated after the passing of Franchise Acts of 1867 belonged to the left wing of the liberals. They were Odger, who was at that time chairman of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association; Cremer, the former secretary of the same council; and Hartwell, the secretary of the London Workers’ Council. Cremer was defeated at the polls; Hartwell and Odger withdrew before the election, Odger being persuaded to this by the liberals.
Marx was speedily disappointed with those of his companions who came from among the British trade-union leaders. In a letter dated September 11,1867, when as far as the outer world was concerned there was no marked evidence of dissension in the General Council, Marx described Odger, Cremer, and Potter, as “envious” and “jealous.” The trouble was that these trade unionists were afraid of the effective strength of the International, and were alarmed at its growing influence in Britain. They did not object to using the International for their own ends, but they had no sympathy with its socialist and revolutionary trend. Nevertheless, during its brief existence, the mainstay of the International was the British working class movement. Down to the time of the Hague Congress, the headquarters of the General Council were in London.
Notwithstanding all the advantages accruing to the British workers from the very fact that the General Council had its headquarters in London, their adhesion to the International made slow progress at first. In February, 1865, the Operative Bricklayers accepted the principles of the International, and decided to affiliate. At the Bootmakers’ Congress, held in March, 1865, a resolution to the same effect was adopted. We have not now to consider what might be the value of block affiliations, without any preliminary agitation among the masses of the members of the affiliating unions, without an explanation of the principles of the new organisation, and without a ballot of the rank and file. In any case, such wholesale adhesions to the International, on the part of workers who did not really understand what they were doing, were but a transient manifestation. Not until the following year, 1866, when, with the defeat of the Liberal Government, the movement for the extension of the franchise was endangered, was a better informed step in support of the International taken by the organised workers. The Trade Union Conference at Sheffield adopted a resolution thanking the international Workingmen’s Association for its attempts to unite the workers of all lands in a fraternal league, and recommending the unions represented at the Conference join the International.
After the Sheffield Conference, extensive trade-union adhesions to the International began. According to the statement of the General Council, fifteen unions had joined before the Geneva Congress, and another thirteen before the Lausanne Congress. Some of these trade unions numbered their membership by tens of thousands; for instance, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers had 33,000, and the United Excavators, 28,000 members. But the block adhesion of such unions, consisting as they did of “moderates” for the most part, was a danger to the edifice built upon such foundations. It has been recognised that even a moderate and semi-bourgeois organisation such as the contemporary British Labour Party may be imperilled by the mass affiliation of trade unions whose members hold the most conflicting political views. All the more, then, to the International, which according to Marx was to function as an international communist party, such mass affiliations must have been a grave danger.
It was in the highest degree characteristic that even during the best period of their joint activities there was not realised between the General Council and the British trade unions either a doctrinal unity or an organisational approximation. The General Council proposed that the London Trades Council should join the International; or, if this suggestion were unacceptable, that a representative of the International should be allowed to attend the sittings of the London Trades Council, in order to keep the latter body informed regarding the occurrence of strikes on the Continent: but the Trades Council rejected both these proposals. The trade unions were so keen to maintain their independence that even on the question of strikes, nearly though it touched them, they could not readily bring themselves to accept any sort of organisational fusion with the International.
But negotiations continued, and two years after the founding of the International they led to definite results. Agreement was secured in respect of both the industrial and the political struggle. As regard the former, in 1866 the London Trades Council passed a resolution to the effect that the workers of all lands must unite to maintain a normal working day and equal rates of wages; in default of this, the condition of the working class was likely to grow worse rather than better; seeing that the aim of the International was to promote the unity of the workers for the aforesaid ends, the Council would enter into an alliance with the International for the discussion of all questions affecting the interests of the workers. Stress, however, was laid on the fact that even within this alliance the Trades Council would remain absolutely independent. In 1866, the London Trades Council, participating in the agitation for electoral reform, made common cause with the International in the demand for the democratisation of all governments.
We see, then, that even the most advanced among the British working-class organisations of that date regarded the international from their own specific outlooks. None of them were concerned to enlarge the sphere of influence of the International; none of them proposed to adopt its program; none of them really understood that program. The International interested them solely as an organisation which might help them in the struggle for the right of organisation, for the curtailment of working hours, and for the increase of wages, and, finally for the extension of the franchise. To attain these limited ends, they would enter into an alliance with the International Workingmen’s Association. But they would not, as trade unions, become integral parts of it.
What the Association aimed at was to become the international political party of the working class.
But it never attained the requisite organisational basis. There were no political parties in the various countries to form the elements of the contemplated international party. It had to build out of the available materials. These were: first, such unstable organisations as arise during mass movements, strikes, etc.; secondly, co-operatives, and societies for mutual aid, quite unfitted for political activities; thirdly, such bodies as the British trade unions, stable enough, but formed exclusively for the industrial struggle, and with little interest in the idea of an international political party aiming at the realisation of communism. It was obvious that the alliance between the International and the trade unions could only be a temporary affair. Sooner or later, when the trade unions had secured their immediate demands, their enthusiasm for the International Workingmen’s Association was bound to wane, especially after the latter had formulated its political demands with more precision.
Still worse was the position in France. Owing to the persecution carried on by the police of the Bonapartist Government, there were no powerful workers’ societies – no trade unions, and, above all, no political organisations. The workers’ movement, when it was anything beyond the most elementary craft-union movement, was partly under the influence of conspiratorially inclined Blanquists who were out of touch with the masses, and partly under that of pacifically minded anarchists of the Proudhonist persuasion. Here and there futile riots occurred, the outcome of the insurrectionist and anarchist trends which were destined in the near future, after the decline of peaceful Proudhonism, to stamp their imprint upon one wing of the French proletarian movement. This was especially noticeable wherever the influence of Bakunin and his adherents was dominant.
Whereas the Marxists, studying the developmental laws of capitalist society, were convinced that that society, in the natural course of its evolution, was preparing all the material and spiritual precursors of the socialist order, and whereas the Marxists based all their tactics upon this supposition, the anarchists hoped to achieve the conquest of capitalism by a flanking movement. Instead of turning to their own account the inevitable internal conflicts of bourgeois society in order to secure a wider and more stable foundation for the working-class movement, the anarchists, whether of the pacifist or of the insurrectionist variety, endeavoured to solve the social problem quite independently of the existence of bourgeois society and its social and political struggles.
Indeed, the anarchists, both of the Proudhonist and of the Bakuninist persuasion, considered that the participation of the working class in the political struggle would be a disastrous error, if not a positive betrayal of the interests of the proletariat. But whilst the Bakuninists hoped to secure the deliverance of the working class by the systematic propaganda of petty insurrections (pending the general rising which was to achieve the social revolution at one blow), the Proudhonists recommended the workers to strive for deliverance, not by political methods, but by petty economic measures, and especially by the organisation of gratuitous credit and of equitable exchange among the producers, whom Proudhon liked to picture to himself in the form of small-holders and independent artisans. Thus Bakuninism gave expression to the destructive instincts of the more backward strata of the proletariat and insurrectionary minded peasants: and Proudhonism gave expression to the aspirations of the uppermost strata of the working class, of those who had not lost hope of attaining a modest independence; and it reflected the petty-bourgeois ideology of the proletariat in the Latin countries, where industrial development was less advanced than in the other lands of Central and Western Europe.
Proudhonism was organised as a system in the period of extreme reaction which supervened in France upon the suppression of the proletarian rising in June 1848. On the one hand, it was tinged with political indifferentism, which was a reflection of the political indifferentism of the masses during the Second Empire; this aroused sharp criticism on the part of the Blanquists, who declared that the International (during the early days the French members of the organisation were mainly Proudhonists) was in the service of the Bonapartist police. Or, the other hand, Proudhonism was characterised by a narrow doctrinairism. In a society based upon the dominion of large-scale capital and upon the centralisation of economic life, the Proudhonists hoped to solve the social problem by economic measures which should not transcend the limits of petty production and exchange. The difficulties arising out of the exploitation of wage labour by large-scale machine industry, in a society where banking capital had become highly concentrated, were to be overcome – so thought the Proudhonists – by the organisation of people’s banks, with free credit, and by the “equitable” (non-monetary) exchange of products among isolated producers, who were to exchange these goods for their actual (“constituted”) value. The Proudhonists did not understand the laws of capitalist development, and therefore they were in permanent opposition to the real working-class movement, which was a natural offspring of capitalism, but which they regarded as being wholly on a false route. They did not understand the significance of the fighting trade-union organisations of the proletariat; the workers’ instinctive interest in the political struggle; or the importance of labour-protection laws. They repudiated strikes, and they repudiated the emancipation of women. They even rejected the principles of socialism, paying tribute in this respect, to the petty-bourgeois prejudices of the French peasantry. To quote Marx, they rejected “every kind of revolutionary tactic, I mean all tactic based upon the class struggle; every sort of concentrated social movement, and consequently every movement realising itself by political means; for example, the legislative restriction of the working day.”
Extremely characteristic in this respect were the activities of the first group of Parisian internationalists. Fribourg’s well-known book is an astonishing memorial of the doctrinaire narrowness of the Proudhonists and of their complete misunderstanding of the new tasks that awaited the proletariat of that day.
“A broken stove of cast-iron,” writes Fribourg pathetically, “was brought by Tolain to the Rue des Gravilliers; there was a deal table, used in the daytime by Fribourg in his work as a decorator, and converted in the evening into a desk for letter writing; a couple of second-hand stools, supplemented later by a job lot of four chairs – such for more than a year was the equipment of the tiny ground floor room, looking northward on to a yard from which a foul smell was continually given off. In this little room, twelve feet by ten, were discussed, I venture to say, the most important social problems of our time."
But what really mattered was, precisely how these problems were discussed – what solutions were suggested. Devoid of understanding of the problems which confronted the working class in consequence of the growth of large-scale industry and commerce, the development of capitalist credit, and the creation of the world market, the Parisian Proudhonists approached the social question from the outlook of petty proprietors and independent artisans. In their meetings, which took place every Thursday, they worked till they were tired out at fantastic schemes for gratuitous credit, which was to make it possible for every worker to become an independent master. As for the tremendous problems arising out of the actual development of contemporary society, these they either ignored, or else solved in a utopian and sometimes in an extremely reactionary fashion. With ingratiating frankness, Fribourg tells us the way in which the Parisian group of Proudhonists approached the problem of recruiting fresh strength after the Geneva Congress, at a time when the international proletariat had already begun to realise how gigantic were the tasks of social reconstruction, and when in France a political revival had begun among the working masses.
In 1866-7, “the Paris Central Committee spent a long time studying the possibility of founding banks ... Aware that there were certain risks of a prosecution, and eager to leave behind them something of real value [!] the Gravilliers drew up the rules of a great mutual assurance society to cover individual risks.”
To anticipate for a moment, we may point out that at the Geneva Congress (1866) the French opposed the legislative limitation of the working day to eight hours. “In the name of freedom of contract, it was improper for the international assembly to interfere in the private relationships between employers and employed, except by giving advice when asked.” They brought forward a scheme for transforming the International Workingmen’s Association into a world-wide co-operative society with variable capital and uniform monthly deposits. The aims of this new organisation were to be: the finding of work for its members; the furnishing of them with credit; the opening of shops everywhere and of international depots for the sale of the products of the members’ industry; the supply of funds to co-operative societies.
The strangest part of the matter was that the Parisian Proudhonists when taking their reactionary line, were obviously quite sincere in their conviction that they were uttering the last word in socialist science, and that they represented in the international working-class movement, not the most backward but the most advanced section. Fribourg, for instance, recording the preposterous decision of the Parisian group to exclude women workers from the membership of international organisations, explicitly declares:
“Regarding this matter, the French ... had decided by a large majority: ‘Woman’s place is the home, not the forum; nature has made her nurse and housewife, do not let us withdraw her from these social functions and from her true sphere in life; for the man, work, and study of the problems of society for the woman, the caring for children and the beautifying of the worker’s home.’ Consequently, to the great scandal of the advocates of the socalled emancipation of woman, they had decided against the admission of women to the International."
The French Proudhonists displayed the same reactionary spirit in their attitude towards the question of admitting brain workers (intellectuals) to the International. Fribourg makes no secret of the fact that, when banging the door in the faces of the intellectuals, he and his friends were influenced by considerations of expediency, and by the danger that the revolutionary intelligentsia would involve them in a political struggle with the Bonapartist regime. He writes:
“In Paris the question had been settled. At their Thursday meetings, the Gravilliers had formally decided upon the categorical exclusion of those who are commonly termed brain workers ... Their view was that the presence of these gentlemen in the ranks of the International Workingmen’s Association would tend to deprive it of its character as a working-class socialist organisation, and would inevitably drag it into the political arena ... The English, less radical [!] than their Parisian colleagues, wanted to admit all applicants; the Swiss and the Belgians made the same demand.
What these Proudhonists dreaded more than all was participation in the political struggle. They had not yet got beyond the outlook of those who contrast “socialism” with “politics.” If they had merely protested against the admission of persons who were nothing but bourgeois politicians, and who were endeavouring to make of the working class a tool to be used by the bourgeoisie in its struggle with pre-capitalist conditions, this would have had some sense. But in fact they were unable to understand that in the endeavours of the proletariat to achieve full enfranchisement from the rule of the possessing classes, the economic and the political struggle are inseparably connected. This failure of understanding was itself an outcome of their general views concerning the social problem, which they hoped to solve by means of reformist palliatives achieved altogether independently of the national and political struggle. On the other hand, as we saw above, their abstention from politics was dictated by purely opportunist considerations, by their reluctance to do anything which would invite attack on the part of the imperial police.
In this respect they were extremely inconsistent. Prior to the foundation of the International, the Proudhonist workers’ circle of which Tolain was the centre had participated in the political struggle and had shown an active interest in political questions. Thus, the members of this group had agitated on behalf of Poland – though it is true that they had addressed themselves to Napoleon III. In the same year, the group took the initiative in the matter of the so-called “working-class candidatures,” and played an active part in the electoral campaign. Nevertheless they continued to hate politics worse than poison, and for that reason the republicans among the working masses regarded them with grave suspicion. This was not likely to contribute to the success of the International in France.
They endeavoured to interpret the rules and constitution of the International in the same bourgeois and anti-political spirit as did the representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie to whom we have previously referred. In especial, they attempted to find a justification for their political indifferentism in that part of the rules and constitution where the political struggle is explained as a means to an end, and as subordinate to the general economic task of the working class. In the text given by Fribourg (op. cit., p.74) of the first French translation of the Preamble to the “provisional rules,” there is no equivalent for the English words “as a means”; we are simply told that “every political movement ought to be subordinate” to the great end of the economic emancipation of the workers. “When he read this passage, Tolain could not contain his delight, and said to his colleagues: ‘At last it has become impossible for them to say that we are the only ones who insist that the political question must not take the first place.’”
When the International was founded, there ensued a revival of the old suspicions that Tolain and Co. were leagued with the Palais Royal, the centre from which Bonapartist agitation among the workers emanated. The conduct of the first French members of the International, their endeavour to keep veteran republicans out of the organisation, added fuel to the flames. It cannot be denied that “the veterans of 1848,” republicans of the old school, did not really understand the new working-class movement, and that they were ill adapted to play the part of its leaders – though this part was obviously the one they expected to play; but the working-class Proudhonists of the Tolain complexion did not understand the spirit of the new movement any better, and they were no better fitted to lead it. In this connection, a characteristic clash occurred between the Parisian Proudhonists and Henri Lefort, one of the republican old guard. It was during the initial stages of the activities of the International in France.
The republicans wanted to join the French section of the International. “Lefort, in his interview with Fribourg, declared that were he allowed to join the International, this would give the organisation an indisputable stamp of radical republicanism, that it would conciliate all the truebloods in Paris, and that ten thousand members of the co-operative societies which had been formed under the aegis of the Labour Credit would rally to the new-born International."
Being unable to secure the approval of the Proudhonist circle, which was jealously guarding the approaches to the International, Lefort approached Le Lubez, one of the original members of the General Council, and was able to secure appointment as “General Correspondent of the International Workingmen’s Association to the French Press,” a position which would involve his being kept fully informed concerning the activities of the organisation. The Parisian bureau was not prepared to put up with this. Tolain and Fribourg were sent as delegates to London to covey a strong protest against Lefort’s appointment, and they were able to secure its cancellation.
Having reported his own and Tolain’s journey to London in order to checkmate Lefort, Fribourg goes on to say: “They had gained the victory. They had formally announced that they would not permit France to be exposed to the dangers of a childish political intrigue, which would (they considered) inevitably plunge the country into the convulsions of civil war, whose most obvious result would be to deprive Paris of all its socialist elements, and perhaps, to retard by a century the freeing of the proletariat."
This could not fail to alienate from the International, not only the bourgeois republicans, but also the workers, who detested the Empire, were ardent republicans by tradition, and were ready to fight for a republic. Individual adhesions could not alter the fact that the working masses as a whole held aloof from the International. Thus Fribourg writes:
“Nevertheless, notwithstanding their apparent success, the Parisian correspondents felt that they were isolated in Paris, and than the working masses were out of touch with them ... A great effort was needed. A list of the most influential Parisian workers was made; private letters were sent to these, and every one of them, believing himself to have received a personal invitation only, turned up to take part is the secret meeting organised by Tolain and Fribourg. The lure had proved effective, and had drawn about one hundred and fifty citizens to the spot ... One of those present at the meeting, Héligon, a wallpaper maker, and a veteran trade unionist, asked point-blank those who had called the meeting what were the political tendencies of the founders of the International, and whether they were in a position to rebut the charges of Bonapartist Caesarism which had often been brought against them.” Tolain and Fribourg endeavoured to allay these suspicions. Among other things, Fribourg said: “As far as concerns the enrolling of new members, the International would naturally prefer republican recruits; but, qua organisation, the International will abstain from any kind of interference in French politics; it is a society for study, not a new Secret Society.”
Such explanations, of course, did not suffice to clear up the misunderstandings, or to arouse among the working masses much enthusiasm, for the new organisation. When we remember, in addition, that the Proudhonists disapproved of the strikes by means of which the working masses expressed their protest against capitalist exploitation, and with the aid of which they were struggling to secure a more favourable position for themselves, it is not surprising that the masses should have turned their backs upon an International whose functions were interpreted in so remarkable a fashion.
“The question of strikes, so inopportunely raised by the Blanquists at this epoch (the time of the first bureau) had no more determined opponents than the members of the International ... Their advice, was sometimes listened to, and to the International belongs the honour of having frustrated all attempts at a strike in the building trade during the years 1865, 1865, and 1867 ... Consumption, production, credit, solidarity, building societies, penny banks, mutual credit societies – such were for years the questions discussed every evening by this little comity of workers.”
What was the result of all this pathetic pettifoggery? Let Fribourg himself give the answer:
“Despite our efforts, it was impossible to secure more than five hundred direct adhesions in the space of seven months; but the correspondents had prepared the way for a future, which they believed they would be able to control, though it was destined to bring them bitter disappointment.”
This was very natural. The working masses were awakening to a new life. Recovering from the terrible defeat they had sustained after the revolution of 1848, they were once more preparing for a decisive struggle against the old order of society. Instinctively they were approaching the problem of their deliverance on the national plane, their efforts finding expression, economically, in strikes, and, politically in a readiness to begin the struggle for the overthrow of the Empire. But at this juncture those who claimed to be the leaders of the movement, those who considered themselves competent to formulate and give expression to its general tasks, were deluding the masses by the offer of petty palliatives of an utterly unpractical character, and were tendering in place of a healthy revolutionary diet, debilitating sophistications of a purely theoretical character.
In a word, during the period we are now considering, the Proudhonists were no longer a party. They had become a sect which could not in any way assist, but could only retard, the mass movement. Blanquism in France, Lassallism in Germany, and subsequently Bakuninist insurrectionist anarchism everywhere, were likewise noted for their sectarian character. Instead of relying upon the actual working-class movement and utilising this as the basis for an attempt to advance the masses to a higher stage, the sectarians were endeavouring to impose upon it their own preconceived doctrines, and thus were involuntarily dragging the workers back to a stage of development which had already been traversed. This is why a fierce ideological struggle in the International was inevitable from the very outset, a struggle to determine in what direction the various rivulets of the then extant working-class movement were flowing,
“The International was founded in order to replace the socialist, or half-socialist, sects, as a fighting force, by the real organisation of the working class. The provisional rules and the inaugural address show this at the first glance. On the other hand the International could not have maintained itself unless the course of history had already smashed sectarianism. The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the genuine working-class movement are always in inverse ratio. As long as there still exists a (historical) justification for the sects, the working class is unripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as the working class becomes mature in this respect, all the sects are fundamentally reactionary. But in the history of the International there was a recurrence of what is universally seen in history. The obsolete endeavoured to reinsinuate itself, and to maintain itself within the newly acquired forms. Thus the history of the International was a continuous struggle on the part of the General Council against the sects, and against the amateurish endeavours which attempted to maintain themselves within the International in opposition to the genuine working-class movement. This struggle was fought in the congresses, but still more in the private negotiations of the General Council with the individual sections.”
This struggle with the sectaries was mainly concluded by that part of the General Council which grouped itself around Marx, and which from the ideological point of view was under his influence. Subsequently many of those who supported Marx, many of the British members of the International, for instance, but also Jung and Eccarius, broke with Marx, and even waged a vigorous campaign against him. But during the first years of the activity of the International they surrounded him like a solid wall. Attending the congresses as exponents of his view and as faithful champions of his tactics, they joined with him in endeavours to free the ideology of the proletariat from the dross of extraneous systems and from the vestiges of utopian teachings.
The way Marx looked at the matter was as follows. He was actively participating in the proletarian movement, a movement elemental in its origin and destined in the long run to lead to the triumph of socialism. The essential matter was that all the local national movements should be co-ordinated into a movement shared in by the whole working class in all capitalist lands. The working masses, who were at this time only beginning to be involved in the political and social struggle, must be helped by their own experience to grasp and to realise their permanent class interests, their historic mission, and the means by which they could hope to fulfil that mission. It was therefore essential on the one hand, to avoid blocking the natural development of the working-class movement, to avoid hindering its normal course. On the other hand, it was equally essential to avoid any attempt to force the pace of the movement, and to avoid skipping intermediate stages. Furthermore, it was urgently requisite that proletarian ideology should be freed from all sectarian elements.
The leading part played by Marx in the International is readily explicable. Thanks to his scientific training and to the nature of his experiences, he was able to give a true explanation of the historical course of the proletarian struggle. From among the various alternating phases of the working-class movement, he was able to seize upon the essence of the movement, to grasp its fundamental causes, to elucidate the conditions of its development in accordance with fixed laws. Moreover, his native skill as political leader furnished him with a sound tactical method, the only one suitable for this massed international movement, arising out of the confluence of a number of streams corresponding to the varying degrees of social development in different countries. In his treatment of the problems which naturally agitated the growing movement, Marx deliberately endeavoured to concentrate his colleagues’ attention upon such points as would secure general acceptance among the workers, would lead them to combine for joint action, and would direly stimulate the class struggle and promote the class organisation of the workers. Marx’s aim to be always a step in advance of the masses, but no more than one step. Taking due account of the level of development of the different strata of the working class in various countries, but not for that reason forgetting the general tasks incumbent upon the proletariat as a whole – the tasks imposed upon it by the development of bourgeois society – Marx, relying upon the lessons of the actual struggle, cautiously and by degrees approached the fundamental problems by which the International was confronted. This, however, brought him into sharp conflict with persons who claimed to be leaders of the masses, but whose equipment with theoretical insight was inadequate for the task. Ruthlessly did he contend with the retarding influence such persons exercised upon the development of the International.
The history of the International Workingmen’s Association and of its congresses is tinged throughout by the struggle between these two trends: on the one hand that of the sectarian and utopist systems which at the outset were dominant in the working-class movement; and, on the other, that of scientific socialism, whose best representative was Karl Marx.