History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff

Chapter Six
The Geneva Congress of The International

THE first general congress of the International Workingmen’s Association was held in Geneva from September 3 to 8, 1866.[85] At this congress, 22 sections of the International were represented by 46 delegates, of whom six were members of the General Council, namely, Odger, Carter, Jung, Eccarius, Cremer, and Dupont. The last-named was also delegated by the French group in London. Affiliated societies (chiefly Swiss trade unions and educational bodies), 11 in number, were represented by 14 delegates. In all, therefore, 60 persons took part in the congress. Of these, 17 represented 4 sections in France; 3 represented 4 sections in Germany; and 20 represented 13 sections in Switzerland. Among the French delegates were Tolain, Camélinat,[86] Perrachon, Murat, Chémalé Malon, Varlin, Fribourg, Anbry, Richard.[87] Among the Germans was Moll. Among the Swiss were Dupleix, Becker, Coullery, James Guillaume, and Adhémar Schwitzguébel (the two last-named being the future companions-in-arms of Bakunin).[88] Jung presided, for he was a good linguist, being proficient in three languages – English, French, and German.

One of the chief tasks of the congress was the ratification of the constitution of the International and of the basic fundamental principles of its program. The final draft of the constitution differed little from that of the Provisional Rules and the general aims of the Association as given above (Chapter Three, see also Appendix.) The new draft was prepared by a special committee of 13 members, and was ratified by the congress. The organisation of the International was built up on a basis of democratic centralism. Since national and centralised organisations were still lacking in most of the countries, very wide powers were naturally entrusted to the General Council; but these were not so extensive as to restrict the possibility of an independent development of the working class-movement in the various lands. Speaking generally, the organisation of the International took the following form.

The fundamental unit of the International was the local branch.[89] In addition, various societies were admitted to affiliation (trade unions, educational societies, etc.). All the branches of a given country united to elect a national central committee, which subsequently received the name of federal council. In the various regions and districts of each country, the sections combined to form district councils. Each branch was autonomous in its activities, and each dealt directly with the General Council, subject, of course, to the general principles of the International, the decisions of the congresses, and the rules of the organisation. At the head of the whole organisation was the General Council, elected by the congress and responsible to it. The Congress was the supreme organ of the International. It decided where the General Council was to sit during the intervals between congresses, it elected the members of the council, and it decided the place and the time of the next congress; the council was empowered to change the locale of the congress, but was not entitled to alter the time which had been fixed by the previous congress. The duties of the General Council were: to carry out the decisions of the congresses; to act as a link between the various organisations; to keep in touch with them by correspondence; to give a general guidance to the work of the International; to collect and arrange statistical data relating to the condition of the workers; to issue periodical reports keeping the sections informed as to the position of affairs. Every member of the International removing to another country was entitled to the assistance of the local members of the organisation. A special rule adopted at Geneva decreed that, as an exceptional contribution to defray the expenses of the General Council, for the year 1866-7, every member of the Association and of the affiliated societies was to pay the sum of thirty centimes (three pence). It was also decided that each section, whether its membership was large or small, was entitled to send one delegate to the congress.

During the discussion of the rules, some of the French delegates raised the question whether it would not be desirable to limit membership of the International to manual workers, or at any rate to allow none but manual workers to be delegated to the international congresses of the Association.[90] This would have deprived the working class of the assistance of its most prominent and experienced leaders. Fortunately, however, the British delegates protested vigorously against the proposal,[91] so that it fell to the ground, and the International was saved from decapitation in the first stages of its activity. But this one proposal surfaces to show how far the then representatives of the French workers were in the rear of the general movement.[92] This was conspicuous in the discussion of other questions on the agenda, such as international mutual aid in the struggle of the workers against capital, trade unionism, the co-operative movement, the limitation of the working day, the labour of women and children, direct and indirect taxation, international credit, standing armies, religious ideas and their influence upon the social, political and intellectual movement.[93] In discussing the question of international mutual aid in the struggle of the workers against capital, the French, faithful to their Proudhonist ideas, talked about the danger of strikes, and recommended that the workers, instead of striking, should establish co-operatives of production, whereby the wages of labour would be transformed into “income from labour.”[94] A report, compiled by Marx in conformity with the ideas of the British trade union leaders, declared that one of the main tasks of the International was to counteract the intrigues of the capitalists, who were ever ready on the occasion of strikes and lock-outs to have recourse to the labour of foreign workers so that thereby they might he enabled to resist the just claims of their fellow-countrymen. In order to achieve the international solidarity of the workers, not in words merely, but in deeds, the report recommended the institution of a systematic statistical enquiry concerning the condition of the workers in. the various branches of production in different lands. A resolution to this effect was adopted by the congress. The divergence between the policy of the General Council and the reactionary outlook of the Proudhonists was likewise conspicuous in the discussion of the problem of the curtailment of the working day. Upon economic and hygienic grounds, the report of the Council demanded the legislative enactment of the eight-hour day, and the abolition of night work. But two of the delegates from Swiss Jura, one of whom was the celebrated Coullery, advocated a ten-hour day. However, even the French delegates did not support them here, and the congress passed a resolution in favour of the eight-hour day. Ever since, this demand has been one of the watchwords of the working class movement throughout the world.[95] The report of the General Council concerning the labour of women and children took cognisance of the tendency of contemporary industry to attract children and young persons of both sexes into the great process of social production, but sharply condemned the method whereby that tendency was realised under the dominion of capital. The report sketched, in addition, a many-sided program for the intellectual, bodily, and technical education of children and young persons, grouping them for this purpose in three age-classes, from 9 to 12, from 12 to 15, and from 15 to 18, respectively. Productive labour was to be conjoined with physical training and mental cultivation, and for the realisation of this plan legislative measures must be inaugurated by the State authority.[96] By securing the passing of such laws the working class would not strengthen the administrative authority; on the contrary, the workers would transform the forces now arrayed against them into tools of their own, subservient to their own interests. By joining their forces, proletarians would be enabled to achieve results which they would vainly strive to secure so long as their powers remained dispersed. Although there were some dissentients, the congress adopted the foregoing report, and turned to consider the question of co-operative labour. The report of the General Council begins by pointing out that one of the tasks of the International is to extend and unify the spontaneous movement of the working class, without imposing on it any doctrinaire system (this was doubtless an allusion to Proudhonism). The congress, therefore, must not commit itself to any special system of co-operation, and must be content with the elucidation of a few general principles. Reiterating the statements of the Inaugural Address, the report recognises that the co-operative movement is one of the forces transforming contemporary society, which is based on class antagonism. The great merit of co-operation lies in the practical proof it furnishes of the possibility of replacing the extant system, in which labour is subordinated to capital, by a republican system of association on the part of free and equal producers. But the co-operative movement is incompetent, by its own unaided powers, to achieve a transformation of the capitalist order of society. This transformation can only be effected by a general change in the whole social structure, which can be brought about in no other way than by the organised forces of society. That is why the workers must seize the administrative power, wresting it from the hands of the capitalists and the landlords. Moreover, diverging from the then prevalent opinion, the report esteems productive co-operatives more highly than distributive, in view of the fact that the latter merely skim over the surface of contemporary society, whereas the former strike at its very foundation. The co-operatives are advised to assign part of their earnings to the propagation of their principles and to the foundation of new societies. Finally the report recommends that all the workers employed by a co-operative should be paid the same standard working wage, regardless whether they are or are not members of the society, for this will tend to hinder the degeneration of the co-operatives into ordinary capitalist companies. By way of a temporary compromise, the issue of minimal profits to co-operators is permissible. The report of the General Council on trade unions, their past present, and future (penned by Marx) is specially distinguished for the brilliancy and strength of its exposition. The trade unions, uniting the workers and putting an end to the mutual competition which weakens them, make it possible for them to escape from the unfavourable situation in which the units of labour power are placed in face of the concentrated forces of capital. The immediate task of the trade unions is restricted to the needs of the daily struggle between labour and capital – in a word, to questions of wages and working hours. So long as the contemporary order of society continues to exist, the activity of the unions must perforce take the line of promoting co-ordination and of uniting the workers. On the other hand, the trade unions involuntarily became organising centres for the working class, just as in the Middle Ages the communes and municipalities served as centres of organisation for the bourgeoisie. While, however, the trade unions are absolutely indispensable in the daily struggle between labour and capital, still more important is their other aspect as instruments for transforming the system of wage labour and for overthrowing the dictatorship of capital. At the present time, the trade unions are too much concerned with the problems of the immediate struggle, and do not sufficiently recognise the necessity for grappling with the very foundations of the capitalist system. In this respect, however, there had already been a change for the better (in confirmation, the report refers to the decision of the Sheffield Conference quoted in the beginning of Chapter Two). Henceforward the trade unions, in addition to carrying on the daily struggle against capitalist oppression, must consciously function as organising centres for the working class in its desire to achieve the sublime purpose of complete emancipation. The unions must support every social and political movement tending in this direction. Marching forward as the leaders, the champions, the representatives of the whole working class, they will attract to their side all the proletarians, even the most backward, even the agricultural workers.[97] Upon this topic the congress adopted the following resolution, which was somewhat spoiled at the close by the intervention of the Proudhonists with their unmeaning slogans: “The congress declares that in the actual state of industry, which is a state of war, there must be mutual aid for the defence of wages. But it is the duty of the congress to declare at the same time that there is a loftier aim to be attained, the suppression of wage labour. It recommends the study of economic methods based on justice and reciprocity.” As regards direct and indirect taxation, the report begins by showing that no mere change in the method of taxation is competent to bring about a fundamental modification in the relationships between capital and labour. If, however, we have to choose between the various systems of taxation, then of course we must demand the complete abolition of indirect taxes and their replacement by direct taxes. The question of international credit had been raised at the London Conference upon the initiative of the French. The report did not touch upon this position, but the French delegates, faithful to their Proudhonist opinions as to the saving role of credit, proposed a resolution in favour of the organisation of a central bank by the International. This was carried, and there, of course, the matter rested. Another section of the report of the General Council deals with “the need for annulling Russian influence[98] in Europe, through enforcing the right of self-determination, and through the reconstitution of Poland upon democratic and social foundations.” The report alludes to the silence of the bourgeois press concerning the iniquities of tsarism, explaining this silence by the fact that the ruling classes of Europe regarded the autocracy as their last redoubt in the event of a popular rising against the dominion of capital. For this very reason the working class was interested in the overthrow of the autocracy, which could only be achieved by restoring the freedom of Poland.[99] On the solution of the Polish question depended the further development of German policy. Owing to the participation of Prussia in the crime against Poland, Germany was affected by the reactionary influence of the Russian autocracy. It was incumbent upon the German proletariat, in especial, to take the initiative in the liberation of Poland, seeing that Germany had been one of the culprits in the partition of that country. The French delegates objected to such a formulation of the problem and demanded that all despotisms alike should be condemned.[100] In the end, a compromise resolution was adopted. In this the general position of the French was supplemented by a special reference to the need for resisting the imperialist policy of tsarism and for restoring the freedom of a socialist Poland. The next resolution demanded the abolition of standing armies. Instead there was to be a general arming of the people. As a temporary measure during the period of transition, small standing armies were permissible for the training of the officers of the militia. The religious question had been entered on the agenda by the French delegates, but had been contemptuously ignored in the report of the General Council. After a futile discussion, the further consideration of this topic was shelved. The next congress was fixed for Lausanne in 1867. The Geneva Congress received letters of greeting, among others, from the Italian working-class societies, and also from bourgeois democrats of the calibre of Ludwig Büchner,[101] the physiologist, and F. A. Lange,[102] the author of The Workers’ Question. It seemed at first sight as if there had been born into the world a new force, one destined to transform the whole course of human history.[103] Almost simultaneously with the Geneva Congress there was held at Baltimore the inaugural convention of the National Labour Union of the United States. This put forward demands almost identical with those voiced at the Geneva Congress of the Workers’ International; and at the second convention, held in Chicago the following year, the National Labour Union decided to co-operate with the International.[104] The awakening of the working class was everywhere beginning. It was not surprising that persons devoted to the cause of the proletariat should yield to a natural impulse, and should decide that humanity was about to enter upon an era of social revolution. With all the more energy, therefore, they resumed the propaganda of socialism, and the organisation of the proletarian forces. After the Geneva Congress, there was considerable discussion of the International in the bourgeois press, and especially in the French press. As Fribourg reports, some of the capitalist newspapers (“La Presse” among others) called the attention of the authorities to the new organisation, and demanded repressive measures. Other journals were sympathetic towards these attempts at working-class emancipation. “La Liberté” published a signed article by Hector Pessard, forecasting an important future for the International, and concluding with a reference to the need for reckoning with this new force. He wrote: “Here is a solemn warning issued to the world by men assembled from all lands, by citizens who are weary the sterile strife that is the inevitable consequence of a decaying organisation.” Upon one point, Fribourg continues, “all these newspaper critics were agreed. In every case they mistook the block affiliations of the British trade unions for effective adhesion to the Workers’ International; they all supposed the organisation to have millions of members, whereas in reality it could count upon barely a few thousands.”[105] This tolerant attitude of many of the bourgeois papers showed that a gloss had been given to the congress by the Proudhonists, in whom the bourgeoisie recognised its own kindred. The socialist and revolutionary principles upon which the International was based were not manifested with sufficient clearness at the first congress, and the bourgeoisie easily gave itself up to illusions, mistaking wishes for facts.[106] It was far from foreseeing the future development of the International.