History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff

Chapter Nine
Further Successes. The Brussels Congress

AFTER the Lausanne Congress, the growth of the International proceeded apace, and its influence continued to extend. In Britain the trade unions, though only by degrees, went on giving their adhesion to the international. But it was already becoming plain that the relationship of the trade-union leaders to the International Workingmen’s Association was merely that of travelling companions. Their main interest was in the immediate, practical aims of the British labour movement. For them, the International was merely a means to an end. They considered that the organisation might be of great help in the realisation of their own aims: it might prevent the importation of foreign strike-breakers; it might help in the extension of the suffrage and in the strengthening of the co-operative movement. Essentially, however, they had no intention of breaking with bourgeois society. On the contrary, they were quite willing to compromise with it, if thereby they could save the trade unions and the funds of these organisations, and if thereby they could induce the bourgeois parliaments and law courts to grant legal rights to the trade unions. At this date there began to appear in Marx’s letters signs of irritation against Odger and Co., whose treachery to the International he foresaw.

In France, a persecution of the International had begun, on account of the resolution concerning the struggle for political freedom that had been passed at the Lausanne Congress,[153] and on account of the activities detailed in the foregoing chapter. The prosecution of the members of the executive committee of the Paris branch (Tolain, Frihourg, Limousin, Varlin, Murat, Chémalé, Malon, etc.), began in December, 1867. On March 20, 1868, the fifteen members of the committee were condemned to pay a fine of frs. 100 each for belonging to an illegal organisation, and the Paris branch was declared to be dissolved. On May 22, 1868, the court sentenced the nine members of the second committee (the one to which Varlin, Malon, Landrin, and others had been elected on March 9th) to fines of the same amount in addition to three months’ imprisonment, and once more the Paris branch was declared to be dissolved. Henceforward, in France, the International was an illegal organisation. But these trials, thanks to the brilliant defence put forward by the accused and thanks to their exposition of the fundamental principles of the International, aroused among the workers much sympathy for the organisation and led to a notable increase in membership.[154]

The mass strike movement continued to spread on the Continent, providing a favourable soil for the propaganda of the idea of the International, which attempted to intervene actively in all the strikes by assisting the workers with money and advice. At this time, when a mass movement of the workers was an entirely new phenomenon, every strike (an incident which now passes practically unnoticed) aroused alarm throughout society and assumed the aspect of a commencing but formidable social revolution. The strike in the building trade at Geneva during the Spring of 1868 was especially effective in drawing public attention to the International. The workers demanded a 20 per cent. rise and a reduction of hours from twelve to ten per diem. The employers refused to discuss the matter. Thereupon the workers handed over the conduct of the strike to the Genevese central committee of the International, which reported the state of affairs to London, Paris, Brussels, etc. The employers absolutely refused to negotiate with the Genevese committee, on the ground that they would not tolerate the interference of an “outside” organisation in a dispute with their “own hands.” The fight thus became one of principle. “What had at first been a simple dispute between the Genevese building-trade workers and their employers, had now developed into open warfare between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, so that the attention of all the European press was concentrated on the affair.[155] After the refusal of the masters to negotiate, the committee of the International notified the inhabitants of Geneva that a great meeting was about to be held at which the participants would beat the war drum. In a panic, the bourgeois hastened to barricade their houses and shops, to hide their valuables, and to arm themselves. Monetary aid for the strikers began to pour in from all directions. London promised help, partly as a gift and partly by way of loan, to the extent of frs. 40,000 a month; further sums, considerable for that date, accrued from Paris, Brussels, and the Swiss branches of the International. The skilled “factory workers” of Geneva (i.e., the watchmakers), who had hitherto held aloof, now made common cause with the building workers. In the end the employers, in view of the general enthusiasm on behalf of the strikers, were compelled to give way, to concede an advance of 10 per cent. in wages and to agree to a reduction of the working day to ten hours. This strike greatly increased the prestige of the International, and led to a notable expansion in its membership. In Geneva alone, the number of members of the International grew by thousands. In addition, several fresh trade unions affiliated.

The growth of the International’s influence in Belgium, likewise was connected with the elemental movement of the working masses in that small but busy land. From the early sixties onward, strikes and popular upheavals were unceasing but the only answer made by the Government to the demands of the workers was made with bullets and bayonets. After the shooting down of the hungry crowd at Marchienne, the General Council issued an appeal on behalf of the victims, and the British workers responded liberally. This action secured for the International many adherents in Belgium, and the number of these was further augmented after there had been renewed fighting in March 1868 and at the ironworks centre of Charleroi. The Brussels branch of the International initiated a widespread agitation, and this greatly increased the popularity of the organisation among the Belgian workers. Branches of the International were founded in the big towns, such as Antwerp, Ghent, Verviers, Charleroi, etc. There were more than twenty in all, and some of them had several hundred members. Besides this many already existing work organisations affiliated to the International.

At the same time the influence of the International was extending in Austria and Germany. In the former, individual organisations joined the International. In the latter, the German Workers’ Union, which was greatly influenced by Marx’s old friend, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and had recently made considerable progress in South Germany, discussed at its Nuremburg Congress the question of affiliating to the international, and agreed to do so by a vote of 68 to 46. The executive was made the German National Committee. This occurred too late for the union to be represented at the Brussels Congress. The German Workers’ Union was the internationalist wing of the German movement. In contradistinction with the internationalists, the Lassallists refused to join the International.[156] In Switzerland, a resolution to join the International was adopted at the Neuchâtel conference of the Swiss-German educational societies. Fifty working-class organisations were represented at this conference, which was held a few weeks before the Brussels Congress.

An important incident – one which did not at the moment arouse adequate attention, though it was destined in the sequel to bring about an immense change in the tactics of the proletariat – was the first participation of two sections of the German working-class movement, the Lassallist and the internationalist, in the elections to the North German parliament (February 12, 1867). Only the future could give a practical demonstration of the importance of this new weapon in the proletarian conflict; only in the future would it become possible to appraise its value in the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class. Here, as always, practice forestalled theory. Germany outstripped other countries in this respect owing to the introduction of universal [male] suffrage after the Austro-Prussian war. (It is true that France had led the way in this electoral reform, but for various reasons the French proletariat had not turned the privilege to account.) The International as a whole failed at first to realise the full value of this form of the political struggle.[157] The organisation was then confronted with other tasks. For instance, it was essential to undertake, at length, the precise formulation of the new lines of the social system towards which the world movement of the proletariat was tending. It was essential that the International should declare its exact attitude towards the principle of collectivism. Such was the chief work of the Brussels Congress.

The third congress of the International sat in Brussels from September 6 to 15, 1868.[158] There were ninety-nine delegates: eighteen from France (among them, Tolain, Murat, Pindy, Aubry, and Charles Longuet); five from Germany (among whom was Moritz Hess, one of the veterans of the Communist League; two from Italy; one from Spain; seven from Switzerland (among whom were Perron and J. P. Becker[159]); five from Britain; six from the General Council (Eccarius, Shaw, Lucraft, Jung, Lessner, and Cowell Stepney. The remaining fifty-five were Belgians (among whom were De Paepe and Professor Hins). Jung was elected to the chair.[160]

The first subject to be discussed was the question of war, raised by the Germans, in view of the possibility of war between Germany and France, a possibility that was realised within two years. The question was formulated as follows: “What attitude ought the workers to take in the event of war between the European Powers?”

In this matter the Congress adopted a resolution declaring that, although the essential cause of war was the existing economic system (and therefore wars could only be done away with by doing away with that system), nevertheless the peoples could even now resist war by means of a general strike.[161]

The Brussels resolution against war ran as follows:

“Considering that justice ought to regulate the relationships between natural groups, peoples, and nations, just as much as between individual citizens;

“That, although the chief and persistent cause of war is a lack of economic equilibrium, and that therefore nothing can put an end to war except social reorganisation, nevertheless an auxiliary cause of war is the arbitrary use of force which results from centralisation and from despotism;

“That therefore the peoples can henceforward lessen the frequency of war by opposing those who make war or declare war;

“That this right belongs especially to the working classes, who are almost exclusively subject to military service,[162] and that they alone can give it a sanction;

“That they have, to this end, a practical, legitimate, and immediately realisable method;

“That, in fact, social life cannot be carried on if production be suspended for a certain time; that it will therefore suffice that the producers should cease producing for them to put a stop to the enterprises of the personal and despotic governments;

“The Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association, assembled at Brussels, records its most emphatic protest against war;

“It invites all the sections of the Association, in their respective countries, and also all working-class societies, and all workers’ groups or whatever kind, to take the most vigorous action to prevent a war between the peoples, which to-day could not be considered anything else than a civil war, seeing that, since it would be waged between the producers, it would only be a struggle between brothers and citizens;

“The Congress urges the workers to cease work should war break out in their respective countries;

“The Congress has sufficient confidence in the spirit of solidarity animating the workers of all lands, to hope that their support will not be wanting to this war of the peoples against war[163]

In connection with this question, the Congress had to define its attitude towards the League of Peace and Freedom, which was to hold its second congress at Berne on September 21, 1868. The International had been invited to send an official delegation. On this occasion, the International definitely dissociated itself from the League. Having decided not to send an official delegation, the Brussels Congress went on to nominate three of its members who were to go to Berne in order to acquaint the members of the League of Peace and Freedom with the resolutions adopted by the International at the Congresses of Geneva, Lausanne and Brussels. They were to state the opinion of the International that in view of the foundation of that body and its endeavours to put an end to war, there was no reason for the separate existence of the League of Peace and Freedom. The latter was invited to join the International Working-men’s Association, and the members of the League were asked to become members of the sections of the International.[164]

Some of the questions discussed at the first and second congresses were reconsidered by the Brussels Congress. With regard to the subject of integral instruction (i.e., education in the widest sense), the congress decided that it was impossible at the moment to organise a national system of instruction. It therefore requested the various sections to inaugurate public courses of study in accordance with, a scientific, technical, and productive educational program, in order to make good, as far as possible, the defects of the education actually received by the workers. As a matter of course, a reduction in the working day must be considered an indispensable preliminary.[165]

With regard to the question of the reduction of the hours of labour, which the Congress regarded as an indispensable preliminary to any improvement in the condition of the workers, it was unanimously agreed that the time had arrived to begin, in all countries where the International was established, an agitation for the legislative realisation of this measure which was long overdue.

Mutual credit among the workers. On this matters the Proudhonists secured their last victory in the International. The British and German delegates were adverse to the proposal. They declared that the petty-bourgeois utopist scheme of Proudhon for saving the workers by a system of free credit was preposterous. Twenty years before it had been refuted by Marx in his book The Poverty of Philosophy. (1847). The French and Belgian Proudhonists, however, secured a majority for their resolution in favour of the foundation of exchange banks which were to supply credit democratically on equal terms to all, “and to simplify the relationships between producer and consumer, namely, to free labour from the dominion of capital, and to make capital resume its natural and legitimate function, that of being the agent of Labour.” Recommending all the sections to discuss this question, the International reserved its final decision until the next congress.[166]

When the question of co-operation came up for discussion, the committee of the congress expressed indignation at the commercial spirit[167] displayed both by the distributive and by the productive co-operatives, and proposed to the congress a resolution showing the methods which every co-operative formed in accordance with the principles of the International ought to follow – these principles “having as their sole aim to remove the means of production from the hands of the capitalists into those of their real owners, the workers.”

The resolution ran as follows:

“Every society based on democratic principles rejects any kind of levy, whatever its form, made in the name of capital, be it rent, interest, or profit, thus leaving to labour all its rights and its full reward.”

In the matter of machinery, and its influence upon the condition of the workers, there was anther compromise between the views of the collectivists and the mutualist opinions[168]; which were then dominant among, the Romance peoples [French, Italian, Spanish, etc.]. The majority of the congress was in favour of the transfer of machinery to the collective ownership of the workers, but the Proudhonists succeeded in modifying the resolution originally proposed by adding a clause relating to mutual credits. The resolution finally adopted by the congress ran as follows:

“Seeing that, on the one hand, machinery has been one of the most powerful instruments of despotism and extortion in the hands of the capitalist, and that, on the other, the developments that it brings in its train are essential to the creation of the conditions necessary for the replacement of the wage-earning system by genuinely social methods of production;

“Seeing that machinery will not be of real service to the workers until a more equitable organisation of society has put it into the workers’ hands;

“The congress declares

“First, that only by means of co-operative societies and through the organisation of mutual credit will the producer be able to gain possession of machinery;

“Secondly, that nevertheless, in the existing state of affairs, there is need that the workers, organised in unions for defensive purposes, should have a word to say in connection with the introduction of machinery into the workshops, in order to ensure that this introduction shall not take place is the absence of certain guarantees or compensation for the worker.”

The congress also discussed the question of strikes, of a federation between the unions for defensive purposes, and of the organisation of councils of arbitration to decide upon the opportuneness and the legitimacy of strikes. The problem had already assumed a concrete and practical form. By the time of the Brussels Congress, the International had extensive experience in the matter of strikes. As we know, there was a widespread strike movement all over Europe during the late sixties, and many of the strikes had taken place with the direct participation of the International and its organisations.

“The question of strikes, which had been twice considered by the congress in other connections, now came up for independent discussion. Several of the sections had sent in written reports on this matter. The report of the Liége section had evidently been written under the spell of Proudhon. It was strongly opposed to strikes, describing them as evil in principle, and almost always disastrous in their effects. The strike was a two-edged weapon which often wounded those who made use of it... The report of the Brussells section written by De Paepe endeavoured to find some method of justifying strikes in principle, without definitely breaking away from Proudhonist theory. The mutualists, said de Paepe, those who were unconditionally opposed to strikes, forgot that in the mines, and in large-scale production generally, such great aggregations of capital were at work, that the acquisition of the means of production would require the possession of inconceivable amounts of capital by the workers’ associations. What other weapon than the strike was available to the proletarians in these industries for their struggle against the continual lowering of wages?”[169]

Even the Proudhonists of the Parisian school, who on theoretical grounds were decisively opposed to strikes, had to bow before the facts, and to admit that, under contemporary social conditions, strikes were inevitable. Thus Tolain, commenting on the Brusscls report, and speaking for himself and those who held similiar views, said:

“The strike is held to be a. coalition, and is condemned for that reason. Why then do not the manufacturers condemn in like manner the coalitions among bankers, commission agents, exporters, etc., which impose a heavy burden upon all commercial relationships? A strike is an act of war; but side by side with an evil and unjust war, there is a war in which people are defending their rights, and that is a holy war.”[170]

With regard to the formation of councils of arbitration to decide upon the opportuneness and legitimacy of strikes, the congress was strongly opposed to the idea of the equal representation of employers and workers in these courts of arbitration, for it considered that they should consist only of workers organised into a trade union. Furthermore, the congress declared that although strikes could not secure the complete enfranchisement of the workers, they were often necessary under the actual conditions of the struggle between labour and capital. It recommended the formation of trade unions in all trades which had not hitherto been organised, and that these unions should federate in all trades both nationally and internationally. Delegates from the various trade unions federated in each locality should appoint delegates to form a council of arbitration which would decide upon the opportuneness and legitimacy of any proposed strike.

All these questions were, so to say, matters of current discussion, passed on from one congress to the next. But in addition there were certain questions which from time to time came up for consideration at the congresses of the International and served as milestones to mark the progress of proletarian ideology. One of these fundamental questions was that of property, already raised, as we have seen, at Lausanne, in connection with the decision of the problem what should be the function of the State At Lausanne, De Paepe had been almost alone in defending the collective ownership of land, to which Charles Longuet had been opposed.[171]

It was perfectly clear to everyone familiar with the history of the socialist movement, and to everyone acquainted with the evolutionary tendencies of capitalist society, that in the idea of its founders (except, of course, the French Proudhonists) and its chief theoretical exponents, the International had stood for a communist society from the very outset, and that the contemporary working class in the then stage of its development and activity was compelled to advocate a communist program. The Address, the Preamble, and the Provisional Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association, the debates of the Geneva Congress, and the articles contributed to the official organs of the International, all breathed the spirit of communism. It was natural, therefore, that the communist trend should be conspicuous in the representatives of countries that were advanced in industrial development and where there was but little peasant population of the old type; whereas individualist tendencies were predominant in the representatives of such countries as France, Italy, and, in past, Switzerland and Belgium, where manufacturing industry was backward and where peasant smallholders formed the majority of the population.

“At Lausanne,” writes R. Meyer, “purely communist ideas were discussed far the first time. Most of the German, British, and American delegates advocated the suppression of the right of inheritance and were in favour of the collective ownership of land and the instruments of production, but their views did not prevail.”[172]

This statement is confirmed by Fribourg, who, as an orthodox Proudhonist, was horrified at the irresistible intrusions of communism into the ranks of the International.

“At the Geneva Congress, except for the Germans and the Belgians no definitely communistic aspirations had been apparent among the delegates. At Lausanne the case was very different. Here for the first time, the two schools were to enter the lists to decide the question of property ... This question, concerning which Cesar de Paepe was in favour of the establishment of the collective ownership of land, and of the abolition (to a considerable extent) of the right of inheritance, gave rise to a long and brilliant discussion, in which the delegates from all the nations took part. Battle was joined between communism and the right of private ownership. The Germans, the British, and the Flemings favoured complete collective ownership, both of land, and of the instruments of production; the French and the Italians, on the other hand, supported the right of private ownership, and absolutely refused to give way on this point.”[173]

But communist ideas did not make their way at first without a struggle, for there was a conflict on the subject within the minds even of those who were to be the future defenders of communism. Thus, at the Lausanne Congress, De Paepe still protested vigorously against being called a communist.

“I am just as much a mutualist as Tolain and Chémalé,” he said, “but I do not see that the collective ownership of land is opposed to the mutualist program. This program demands that the whole product of labour shall belong to the producer, and shall be exchangeable only for produce created by precisely the same quantity of labour. But land is not the product of any kind of labour, and reciprocity of exchange does not apply to it. To stand on the same footing with productive labour, the rights of the owner of land must be restricted to a right to own the produce of the land ... To make the land itself the property of a few individuals amounts to making all the other members of society the vassals of these few. The landowners need merely come to an agreement among themselves, and they would be able to starve the others into submission. “[174]

Nevertheless, communist ideas were spreading among the adherents of the International, save only for Tolain and Co., whose minds were monopolised by the petty-bourgeois dogmas of Proudhonism. This was manifest a year later, at the Brussels Congress. Progress was slow but sure. Edmond Villetard, who is strongly opposed to communism, puts the matter quite correctly in his history of the International workingmen’s Association. He writes

“Communism, however, had as yet ventured to declare war only against the workers’ societies [co-operatives] and the great companies; hitherto it had demanded no more than a semblance of collective ownership. Private ownership had been respected at the congresses of 1866 and 1867, or at most had merely had to repel the onslaught of the vanguard, the raid of a few communist lancers. But at Brussels in 1868, a general assault on private property was delivered by the united forces of the international, not excepting those who honestly believed themselves to be defending it.”[175]

“At the Brussels Congress,” writes Meyer, “communist ideas were completely victorious.[176] The question of the ownership of land was now discussed on the lines of a resolution drafted by a special committee of nine members. Substantially, this resolution declared that the mines and quarries, and also the railways, should belong to the community; so should arable land, forests, canals, roads, telegraphs, and other means of communication. The Proudhonists, although they were prepared to approve of the socialisation of machinery and of the means of industrial production in general, were definitely opposed to agrarian communism, for they voiced the individualist prejudices of the petty peasantry in France and elsewhere. But their opposition was fruitless. Of the fifty delegates present, thirty voted for the resolution, and five against, while there were fifteen abstentions. The majority was composed of 8 English delegates, 4 French, 4 German, 1 Italian, and 13 Belgium; the minority consisted of 1 French and 4 Belgian delegates. But in view of the extensive differences of opinion concerning the resolution, which marked an epoch in the development of the International and of socialism in general, it was decided that the question should be studied once again, and should be rediscussed at the next congress.

Now came the election of the General Council. It contained a number of new members: Applegarth, Cowell Stepney, Johannard, Cohn, and others. The place of the next congress was fixed for Basle.

At the Brussels Congress, the communists secured a notable victory. For the first time, the International openly declared in favour of communism, even agrarian communism.[177] Nevertheless, Marx and Engels were by no means satisfied with the results of the congress, although they recognised that a considerable advance had been made. Evidently, it was not realised at first how great a defeat had been inflicted on the Proudhonists.[178] The upholders of the capitalist system and of private property realised that the Brussels resolution was a menace to the integrity of capitalist society. The recently deceased liberal economist, Laveleye, comments as follows upon the results of the congress

“The change in the International took place at the Brussels Congress. Originally, the organisation had merely been intended to be a huge society for mutual defence, for keeping up or raising wages – a sort of universal trade union. Now it dreamed of completely transforming society by suppressing the wage system, ‘this new form of slavery.’ How was the transformation to be achieved? By the collective ownership of all the means of production. ‘Collectivism’ was the new doctrine ... Society would become ‘collectivist,’ not by revolution but by ‘evolution.’ The change would be brought about by ‘social needs,’ and not by the decisions of a convention.” [179]

The Proudhonists were much concerned at the triumph of communism, for they felt that the Brussels resolution gave their internationalist utopia its quietus. The results, declares Fribourg, were “disastrous to the International. At the congress, the communists formed the overwhelming majority of the hundred delegates; nothing could resist them – neither property nor liberty ...” True to his custom of referring sarcastically to the intrigues of the revolutionary intelligentsia, he adds: “It was easy to note that Blanqui and Tridon, who had not failed to put in an appearance as visitors at all the sessions of the congress, were highly delighted to see the international at last led astray.”[180] – though it was quite inconceivable that these two spectators could exercise any influence on the decisions of the congress.

From the time of the Brussels Congress, the importance of the reaction any group of moderate-conservative Proudhonists, which had done its utmost to retard the development of the French working-class movement, became infinitesimal. Henceforward, the faithful disciples of the middle-class ideology of Proudhon were reduced to the role of malevolent but impotent critics of a movement that had definitely broken away from their pernicious influence.[181]

Among those Proudhonists who were not deaf to the voice of life, and who were not severed from the mass movement of the working class, there was ripening a tendency to break away from Proudhonist dogma. This tendency was already manifest at the Brussels Congress.

Vera Zasulich pertinently remarks:

“Although the question of private property in land was not of immediate practical importance, it was of enormous theoretical importance. Especially was it of theoretical importance for the French section of the International, in which the actualities of the struggle and modifications of views were undermining implicit faith in the authority of Proudhon and were destroying the unity of program which had hitherto characterised the mutualists of Tolain’s group.”[182]

The actual advance of the working-class movement was giving the lie to Proudhonist theory. The extensive development of working-class theory and its general trend in the direction of collectivism [communism], were making Proudhonism seem a futile and even ridiculous vestige of earlier days. “The program of mutualism had been completely shattered.[183] Practically, little more was heard of it after the Brussels Congress. Now that the need for the State ownership of the instruments of production had been recognised, with the corollary that the working class should seize the State authority, the ideas of some of the Proudhonists (as we shall learn in the sequel) took a step backwards. Repudiating the notion of State ownership of the land, they considered that the land, and all the actual products of labour, were not the social property of the community as a whole, and were no one’s property. Proudhonism thus persisted in its repudiation of any kind of system, of any kind of organisation, which might replace its ideas of ‘permanent revolution’ (the revolution en permanence of the Bakuninists).[184]

Ere long we shall encounter this new “left-wing” Proudhonism, this new version of the standard type of anarchism.