History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff

Chapter Seven
Development of The International. The International and Strikes

Events were soon to show how right Marx was in his understanding of the working-class movement, and how wrong-headed were the Proudhonists in their antagonism to the actual form of that movement and in their attempts to impose upon it their doctrinaire systems of “mutuality,” “gratuitous credit,” “equitable exchange,” etc. If anything made it possible for the International to diffuse its influence quickly, to affect the opinions and to arouse the sympathies of the wide masses of the people, it was the active participation of the organisation in all the manifestations of the working-class movement, all the manifestations of the workers’ political and economic struggle, and especially its participation in the strike movement, which at this time began to involve wider and ever wider masses of the workers – above all on the Continent. The economic crisis of 1866 was a main factor in the development of these strikes.

Eichhoff writes:

“During the years 1866 to 1868, strikes and lock-outs were especially common both in Britain and on the Continent. The crisis of 1866 and its consequences were the chief causes of this phenomenon. The crisis paralysed speculative enterprise. Large undertakings were at a standstill. Some of the entrepreneurs went bankrupt, for, owing to the fluctuating conditions of the money market, they were not in a position to fulfil their financial obligations, which had been entered into at a time when the tide of speculation was at its height. There ensued a complete arrest of trade, together with an unprecedented influx of gold into the British and French banks. Gold accumulated in the banks because there was no opportunity of exchanging it for goods. Hence general stagnation, and a widespread fall in prices. The only rise in prices was that which affected food products, and, above all, the food product most essential to the workers, namely, bread - the dearness of bread being due to the bad harvests of 1866 and 1867. Simultaneously with the rise in food prices came the general commercial crisis, which for the workers signified a reduction of working time and a corresponding curtailment of wages. The result was that strikes and the closing down of factories were of frequent occurrence. To this was superadded the circumstances that in France and the continental countries the laws against combinations among the workers had only been abolished within the last few years. There can be no doubt whatever that the resolutions adopted at the Geneva and Lausanne workers’ congresses exercised a certain moral influence, reinforcing the recognition that the workers of various localities had a strong support in the International Workingmen’s Association. But there were no grounds for the charge brought by part of the European capitalist press that the International was the instigator of such conflicts. Nowhere did it take the initiative in bringing about strikes. Its activities in this direction were limited to intervention where intervention was demanded by the character of the local conflicts.”[107]

Villetard, one of the bourgeois historians of the International, wrote in 1872:

“In so far as it is possible to divine the secret thoughts of the founders of the International, their main, we might almost say their only, object was in the first instance to bring about an understanding between the workers of all lands. This understanding was to prevent the competition which had long existed between the workers of various countries. Hence forward, through the power of combination (or to use the jargon of the International, through solidarity) all the “workers” would be able to impose their laws upon the employers who were not in a combine or were not solidarised.[108]

As if the International has made any secret of its aims! As if the Address and Provisional Rules, first published in 1864 and since then frequently reprinted in pamphlet form and in newspapers, had failed to make it perfectly clear that the International Workingmen’s Association was endeavouring to put an end to mutual competition among the workers, not merely within the confines of individual countries, but internationally as well! Bourgeois informers had no need to practise this art of “divining,” or to talk about the “secret thoughts of the founders of the International.” All they required was to read the Address and Provisional Rules carefully.

In its intervention in strikes, the International had two aims: first of all, to prevent the import of foreign strikebreakers (as, for example, during the strikes of the sievemakers, tailors, and basket-makers in London); and, secondly, to give direct aid to all the strikers by inaugurating collections and sending money. All this made the new organisation immensely popular in working-class circles, where the idea was now gaining ground that the International was a faithful champion of the proletariat, and was fighting valiantly on behalf of the workers’ interests. In this respect, the bronzeworkers’ strike in Paris (February, 1867) was of great importance. When the employers, deciding to crush the recently formed organisation of the bronzeworkers, suddenly discharged several hundred of those who had joined the union, the latter turned for help to London. The General Council, convinced that the whole question of the right of the workers to organise was at stake, conferred with the British trade unions, which hastened to give the Parisians unlimited credit. The sections of the International in other countries likewise came to the aid of the Paris comrades, and the employers were soon compelled to make concessions.[109] In return, when there was a tailors’ strike in London lasting seven months, the Continental workers were not content with preventing the shipment of strike-breakers to England, but also gave material aid, and thus contributed to the victory of the strikers, here was an obvious testimony to the direct value of international solidarity, and to that of the “powerful association, which had in so brief a time been able to diffuse among the working masses the spirit and practice of the brotherhood of labour.”

The Proudhonists were horrified by the development of the strike movement, which jarred with their utopian ideas and frustrated all their fantastic schemes.

“Strikes, more strikes, and yet again strikes; no longer any study, or anything like study ... ,” exclaims the disgusted Fribourg, referring to the events of 1870, writing only a few months before the Commune. “In the workshops, members were recruited for the International and adhesions were accepted in the spirit in which a friendly glass is offered and accepted.[110]

Such “leaders” of the workers’ movement as Fribourg were hopeless. He was perfectly honest, but simply did not understand the mass struggle of the contemporary proletariat. He belonged to the past movement, not to the future. His point of view was not proletarian but petty bourgeois. Even such representatives of the Parisian revolutionary workers as Varlin continued for a considerable time to be swayed by Proudhonist prejudices.

Defending himself in court on May 22, 1868, Varlin said:

“The International is opposed to strikes on principle. It considers them anti-economical. It declared this at Geneva and has declared it everywhere.”[111]

He sincerely believed he was speaking in the name of the International (which in actual fact regarded strikes as the natural and necessary form of the workers’ struggle with capital, and considered them of immense importance for the awakening and unifying of the proletariat) when he was really voicing the opinions of the small mutual admiration society of Proudhonists. However, Varlin was soon to break away from the Proudhonists, and to march forward boldly in the path of the social revolution.

The British, on the other hand, speedily learned to value the International on practical no less than on theoretical grounds. In especial they esteemed it for the part it played in supporting strikes and in preventing the introduction of foreign strike-breakers into Britain. For, in the British Isles, the trade union movement had attained a high degree of development, far in advance of that known as yet to the Continental proletariat. Wages were higher in Britain, the hours of labour were shorter, and, in general, working conditions were better.[112] Despite the illusions and self-sophistications of the Proudhonists (who imagined themselves to be playing a decisive part in the congresses of the international), we learn from the report of the General Council read to the Lausanne Congress that in actual fact the British point of view dominated the sessions:

“Capital looks upon the worker as a mere instrument of production; the last lock-out of the London basketmakers affords a striking example of this. Here are the facts. The London employers told the basketmakers that the latter were to dissolve their union and to accept a reduction in wages. If these terms were not agreed to within three days, a lock-out would be declared. Faced by this ruthless proclamation, the workers rebelled, refusing the terms. The employers had anticipated such a refusal, for agents had already been sent to Belgium, and returned bringing Belgian workmen ... The newcomers were herded under the railway arches of Bermondsey. Here they had to work, feed, and sleep, for they were not allowed to go out lest they should come into contact with the British workers. But the General Council was able to force the barrier established by the employers. By a trick, access was gained to the isolated Belgians. Next day the latter, having realised their duty, returned to their native land, and were compensated for their loss of time by the London Basketmakers’ Society. Just as they were leaving, there arrived another shipload of Belgian workers, but this time we met the newcomers, who went home by the next boat. After that, the employers found it impossible to get any more workers, and in the end they had to go back to the old conditions.”[113]

The part played by the International in the strike movement during the closing years of the “sixties” was obvious alike to the enemies of the organisation and to those who were professedly neutral.

After pointing out that during recent years there had been a very large number of strikes, and after enumerating some of those that had occurred during the year 1869, Testut, in his history of the International, continued as follows

“The International has played an important part in all these strikes; it has instigated some of them, where this seemed opportune; most of them have been subsidised by the organisation. Through its immense influence, and with the aid of the funds at its disposal (!), it has provided help for the strikers, furnishing them with means to carry on the struggle more advantageously against the employers and the capitalists. By its ramifications throughout all lands it has been able to prevent the workers of one country from competing with their fellow-workers in another, and has even been able to provide the latter with the information and the funds requisite for a removal to some other locality where there was a certainty of employment. Sometimes the leaders of the International have been sent as delegates to the strikers to encourage these in the fight. The International has done everything in its power to prolong strikes, and to postpone the resumption of work, the aim being to force the employers to come to terms. Occasionally, secret committees have been organised: various occupations, factories, or workshops, have been blacklisted: fines have been imposed on employers who have refused to go on paying a suggested rate of wages or to grant a desired increase; at the end of the strike the employers have been compelled to pay up the full sum of the fines imposed. The funds thus obtained have been used for the repayment of loans made to the strikers, either by the General Council itself, or by the district councils or committees, or by organisations affiliated to the International. [114]

It was natural enough that the bourgeoisie, which had begun by organising a conspiracy of silence against the international, should subsequently have been inclined to exaggerate its importance, and to attribute to its influence (“instigation”) everything in economic and political life that was disagreeable to the capitalist class. But what interests us in this book is to ascertain the real facts. These are that the international did its utmost to support every active movement on the part of the labouring masses struggling for emancipation. Hence the influence of the organisation grew.

“At first the strike was an end in itself. By degrees, however, experience showed that a strike contributed enormously to the strength of the International, inasmuch as it induced the strikers to throw themselves into the arms of the organisation. Thereupon the strike, from an end became a means, ... every strike, whether successful or unsuccessful, inevitably leads the workers who have taken part in it to affiliate to the International.”[115].

This was a rather remarkable fact, and it was confirmed by the whole history of the International. Of course, certain stupidities were reiterated by bourgeois politicians and historians, as that the International fomented strikes for the purpose of increasing its influence among the working masses and in order to enrol new members. It is, however, perfectly true that the General Council, the national central committees, and the local committees, of the International rallied to the assistance of the working masses in their struggle against oppression and exploitation. To this purpose, the organisation devoted all its experience and all its resources – though the latter were exceedingly slender, notwithstanding the fanciful tales circulated by the bourgeois press. The result was that the workers became accustomed to regard the International as their truest friend and champion; they began to look upon it as the actual expression of their interests, and to join the organisation. The history of the working class attests this in all the countries in which strikes were widespread owing to the economic crisis of the year 1866.

Thus, referring; to France, the report of the General Council to the Basle International Congress states:

“Shortly after the massacre at La Ricamarie, the silk-spinners of Lyons (women for the most part) went on strike. They applied to the International, which assisted them in the struggle, mainly through the instrumentality of its French and Swiss members. Despite the intimidation of the police, the workers publicly announced their adhesion to the International, and formally joined that body by sending subscriptions to the General Council. At Lyons, just as previously at Rouen, the women workers played a vigorous and splendid part in the movement. Other Lyons crafts followed the example of the silk spinners, and we recruited over ten thousand new members from among this heroic population, which more than thirty years ago inscribed on its banner the war-cry of the modern proletariat: ‘Live working or die fighting.’”[116]

We have already referred to the support given by the International to other strikes in France (notably, the famous strike of the bronzeworkers) and Britain. An especially decisive role in popularising the name of the International among the broad masses of the proletariat, which was only just awakening to political life, was played by its intervention in the case of the Belgian workers. In Belgium a mass movement, consequent upon an incredible degree of exploitation, had begun to manifest itself in the middle of the sixties. The demands of the workers, driven to despair by capitalist oppression, were met by the Government by the organisation of a systematic bloodletting.

In the manifesto of the General Council entitled, “The Massacres in Belgium,” dated London, May 4, 1869, we read

“There is only one country in the civilised world where the authorities greedily and joyfully seize the pretext of strikes that they may slaughter the workers. The country unique in this respect is Belgium, the model land of Continental constitutionalism, the miniature paradise of landlords, capitalists, and priests. A massacre by the Belgian Government recurs year after year with the inevitability of the revolutions of the earth round the sun. This year’s massacre only differs from those of previous years in that the victims have been more numerous, the licence of the soldiery has been more atrocious, the jubilation of the clericalist and capitalist press has been noisier, and the groundlessness of the pretexts put forward by the official butchers has been more shameless.” [117]

Vera Zasulich writes:

“Already in the previous year there had been outbreaks of disorder at the coal mines near Charleroi, and sanguinary measures of repression had ensued. In March, 1868, disturbances broke out for the following reasons. The colliery owners formed a combine to raise the price of coal; but their chief customers the owners of the iron foundries, began to import coal from abroad. The colliery owners, rendered desperate by their failure, turned upon the workers. They opened the mines only four days a week, and reduced the piece rate by 10 per cent., so that the miners could now earn barely half their previous wage. Is it surprising that the miners, receiving such a pittance, and dying of hunger, should have risen in revolt? Work ceased throughout the Charleroi district. Hungry crowds, led by women, ravaged the neighbourhood. Troops appeared on the scene, and in a first conflict some of the workers were killed and many wounded. Other fatalities followed. The police came on the heels of the soldiers and arrested many of the strikers.

“Such was the deplorable situation of the Charleroi miners, reduced to the last extremity of poverty and despair, when they suddenly heard encouraging and justificatory voices, and perceived a means of help and defence in the International. The Brussels branch began an agitation in the press against the horrors of Charleroi. Meetings were held, denouncing the cruelty of the colliery owners, and of their henchmen, the soldiers and police. All the workers were urged to show solidarity with the unhappy miners. Their cause, declared the Brussels branch, was the cause of the whole International. The branch also briefed lawyers for the defence of those who had been arrested, and, thanks to this agitation, the accused miners were all acquitted. In addition, the International gave financial aid, though this was inconsiderable in view of the number of the hungry.

“All this made the International Workingmen’s Association enormously popular among the Belgian workers. By the summer there had been formed in Belgium nearly two hundred branches, many of these having a membership of several hundred.”[118]

The masses, once they had become aware of the existence of the International, had realised its aims, and had seen it at work, naturally regarded it as their own organisation, and joined up. The new adhesions were at first individual, but little by little they assumed a collective character. Of course, these collective adhesions did not amount to an actual joining up of the masses at large with the International; but active individuals and groups, becoming segregated from the mass, constituted the effectives of local branches, and these formed a moral link between the organisation and the toiling masses. In this way, the political and moral influence of the International steadily increased.

Laveleye writes:

“When Bastin was examined, in the trial of May, 1870, the prisoner’s answers showed clearly how the members of the International were recruited. ‘I am accused,’ he said, to the presiding judge, ‘of having joined a secret society. I absolutely deny the charge. It is true that I am a member of the International, but that body is not a secret society. I joined it in the following circumstances. At a meeting held during the ironfounders’ strike, one of our friends said: ‘We have formed a fighting organisation of our own, but something else remains to be done. We must join the International. He read the rules to us. We saw that they were good, and that there would be no harm in joining. The matter was put to the vote, and, to the number of twelve hundred, we joined the International.’ Another of the accused, Duval, subsequently a general under the Commune, reported a similar instance: ‘Thirty-six of our employers, out of forty-seven, refused. Several of them made answer: “We shall wait until you are starving.” In face of this contemptuous treatment, at the next meeting we resolved to fight to the last ditch, all giving, our word of honour not to resume work until our demands had been granted. Some one proposed that we should join the International. All the members of the union who were present, eight or nine hundred in number, joined up in a body, signed their application forms then and there, and immediately appointed four delegates to the Parisian district Council.’”[119]

We have noted above how Fribourg, the Proudhonist, sarcastically alluded to the frivolous spirit in which the masses adhered to the International as soon as they had been informed of its existence and aims and had made practical acquaintance with its methods of work. Commenting on this remark of Fribourg’s, Vera Zasulich, in the work previously quoted (pp.317.) justly observes:

“Although the Norman weaver or the Belgian miner joined the International without reading its rules, this adhesion introduced a mass of new elements into his life, and compelled him to understand and feel stirring things. Hitherto he had, perhaps, been a solitary worker, one who had never been given any help since childhood. He had hardly had a sense of solidarity even with the workmate who toiled beside him day after day. Now, of a sudden, he realised his solidarity with the millions of proletarians throughout the world. He could not but feel that a far more intimate moral tie bound him to the worker who lived so far away, dwelling in a foreign city whose very name he had never heard before, the worker who in this difficult hour of the strike had spared some hard-earned pence to help him, than to the employer who was his fellow-countryman, or to all the well-fed fellow-citizens who invariably took his master’s side. We may put it that the International, at this hour, made the working class realise the collective strength which is the outcome of unity. Even in places to which the International has not yet made its way, and where the workers knew of it only by hearsay, it gave them a feeling of moral support and encouragement.”