History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff

Chapter Ten
The Basle Congress

“THE International has made rapid progress,” wrote Testut. “Thanks to its active propaganda, to the indefatigable zeal of its members, to the numerous strikes whose success has been ensured by its work, to its meetings, its newspapers, its manifestoes, its powerful organisation, its methods of affiliation, and the resources it is able to command – it has steadily widened the circle of its influence and increased the number of its adherents.”[185]

The growth of the International was closely connected with the mass strike movement of the workers, and with the part played by the Association in these strikes. The strike movement continued during 1869 to spread throughout Europe, the conflicts assuming a more acute character, and frequently being signalised by the intervention of the armed forces of the State.

We have already had occasion to refer to the Belgian strikes. But in Britain, too, there were collisions between the soldiers and the Welsh miners who were on strike, and bloodshed resulted.[186] The struggle of the British bourgeoisie with the workers continued; and when the unions were interfered with, the workers began to speak in revolutionary fashion – though unfortunately this revolutionary fervour was short-lived. The Birmingham Trade-Union Congress, which met shortly before the Basle Congress, reiterated the declaration that the International was the most trustworthy champion of proletarian interests, and it recommended all the British trade unions to affiliate to the International Workingmen’s Association.

In France, there was a strike of the textile workers in Normandy. The General Council of the International and the London Trades Council took an active interest in this strike, with the result that a number of trade unions were formed among these workers. At Ricamarie, near Saint Etienne, the ferment among the coalminers led to a number of sanguinary collisions with the imperial troops, and, as a sequel, the revolutionary movement among the French workers was considerably strengthened. At Lyons, the silk-spinners, women for the most part, struck. Notwithstanding police intimidation, they made their formal adhesion to the International. Here there were actively at work the elements that had flocked to the standard of Bakunin who, indeed, received his mandate to the Basle Congress from the Lyons women workers.

In Switzerland there were many strikes, which were of considerable size, for that date. For instance, there were the strikes of the ribbon-makers and the dyers in Basle; a new strike in the building trade at Geneva; printers’ strikes, etc. In Belgium, the class war was once more active at Seraing and Borinage, and in connection with these strikes the General Council issued a stirring appeal.

True to its tactics, the International tried to participate actively in all such developments of the mass movement of the workers. Consequently, its authority continually increased, and the number of its members steadily grew. The severities displayed in the official prosecutions of the workers served only to strengthen the Association and to attract adherents to its ranks. The new trade unions all joined up, and so did a number of individuals. In Belgium alone there were 64,000 members.[187]

In Germany, out of the trade unions which did not adhere to the Lassallist party but grouped themselves round Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht,[188] there was formed at the Eisenach Congress (August 7 to 9, 1869), the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, known as “the Eisenachers,” which was destined to undergo so brilliant a development in the sequel. As regards the relationship to the International, Bebel was of opinion that “under any circumstances the Social Democratic Party in Germany must first constitute itself, for along with an international organisation it was indispensable to have a national one, and one without the other would only be a shadow.”[189] In these words was formulated the process by which, as we shall see, the actual development of the working-class movement was to take place after the collapse of the First International. It is true that “the Eisenach Congress urged the members of the party to become members of the International,”[190] but this recommendation did not get beyond the paper stage. At the same time, the congress considered that it was essential to organise international trade unions; and henceforward the unions affiliated to the Eisenach party actually styled themselves “international unions,” However, this type of organisation, even in an embryonic form, was not destined to become a reality, for we must recognise that international trade unions do not yet exist. (An international workers’ party, even, is only now beginning to be elaborated, in the form of the Communist International.)

The working-class movement in Austria began as a branch of the general movement in Germany, and adhered to the Eisenach party. But there were already apparent the forerunners of an independent movement in Austria and even in Hungary. In the “Vorbote” Becker announced his individual adhesion to the International, and also that of several groups of Austrian and Hungarian socialists.

To sum up, until the time of the Basle Congress the working-class movement continued everywhere to grow in numbers and strength,

At the Basle Congress, Applegarth reported that in Britain there were 230 branches of the International, with 95,000 members, and funds amounting to £1,700. In Belgium, according to Testut, the International reckoned its adherents by the thousand. As a matter of fact, these adhesions were purely platonic! After a strike, unions and entire districts were eager to affiliate, but such affiliations did not bring any organisational strength. However, in the year 1870 there were in Belgium six regional federations and a number of branches.

The International could not function legally in Austria because of the law prohibiting any connection with foreign societies. But legal prohibitions could not impede the work of the Association; on the contrary, such prohibitions only stimulated the workers’ movement to assume a more strongly revolutionary form. “L'Internationale,” in its issue of March 14, 1869, informs us that the Austrian adhesions to the International Workingmen’s Association amounted to 13,350 persons. In Vienna, the membership was 10,000; in Linz 600, and so forth. In Tyrol and the neighbouring provinces, the members numbered 6,800; in Bohemia and Silesia, there were about 6,000; in Pesth and Temesvar (Hungary), 2,500. Even the rural workers began to join the organisation.

The movement spread into Holland, a country where hitherto the life of the people had been patriarchal in its simplicity. The first branch of the International was formed in Amsterdam in 1869, and this Dutch branch got into direct communication with the Antwerp branch in Belgium. In June, 1869, the shipwrights of Amsterdam came out on strike. Thanks to their splendid solidarity and to the influence of the International, the employers acceded to their demands for higher wages. At the same time there was going on in Holland a vigorous agitation in favour of universal suffrage.

There now began to arise persistent and intimate ties with the New World, where capitalism had quickly become established on virgin soil, unimpeded by the vestiges of the feudalist and monarchical regime.

In the congratulatory address presented to Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his re-election as president of the United States (see above), the General Council had expressed its firm conviction that the Civil War of 1861-1864 would prove as important to the progress of the working class in the U.S. as the War of Independence nearly a century before had been to the progress of the bourgeoisie. To a certain extent this prediction was fulfilled. Immediately after the Civil War, the working-class movement in the States took on an active form. As a direct consequence of the marked growth of capitalism, there was a notable development of the trade-union movement. Local and national organisations were formed in the various branches of industry, and by degrees ties were established between these. At length, in August, 1866, there was founded in Baltimore, as already recorded in Chapter Six, the National Labour Union of the United States, the inaugural convention being attended by representatives of about sixty organisations. As we have learned, this convention put forward demands almost identical with those voiced a few weeks later at the Geneva Congress of the International. Noteworthy, in especial, is it that the Baltimore Convention passed a resolution in favour of the eight-hour day.

At the second convention of the National Labour Union, held in Chicago during August, 1867, the question of an official adhesion to the International Workingmen’s Association came up for discussion. A proposal to that effect was brought forward by William J. Jessup, the president of the Union, and was strongly supported by William H. Sylvis. The convention, however, decided against direct affiliation to the International, and was content to express its sympathy by the adoption of the following resolution:

“Whereas the efforts of the working classes in Europe to acquire political power to improve their social conditions, and to emancipate themselves from the bondage under which they were and still are, are gratifying proof of the progress of justice, enlightenment, and civilisation;

“Resolved, That the National Labour Convention hereby declares its sympathies, and promises its co-operation to the organised working men of Europe in their struggle against political and social injustice.”[191]

The question of a formal adhesion to the International was not voted on at the third convention of the National Labour Union (New York, August, 1868). But at this convention it was at length decided to form the first independent working-class party in the States, which was known as the Labour Reform Party. This had a socialist trend, though it was not free from bourgeois-democratic elements. The president of the new organisation was Sylvis, who maintained a regular correspondence with the leaders of the International. In May, 1869, the General Council addressed an open letter to the National Labour Union commenting upon the successes of the working-class movement in the United States, and inviting the National Labour Union to send delegates to the Basle Congress of the International.

At the fourth convention of the National Labour Union, held at Philadelphia in August, 1869, although again there was no decision taken to affiliate to the International Workingmen’s Association, it was decided to send an official representative to the Basle Congress of the International. The delegate was A. C. Cameron, editor of “The Workingmen’s Advocate,” a periodical published at Chicago.[192] Cameron put in an appearance at the Basle Congress, where, writes Hilquit (p.792), “he gave grossly exaggerated accounts of the strength of the organisation represented by him, but did not otherwise participate in the deliberations.” As a matter of fact, though Cameron declared at Basle that he represented 800,000 American workers, Sorge tells us that he would not have had funds for the journey to Europe had not H. Day, a well-to-do New York democrat, contributed several hundred dollars.

To anticipate, we may say that, to the last, the National Labour Union was unable to make up its mind to join the International. At the fifth convention, held at Cincinnati in August, 1870, Jessup, who, after the death of Sylvis, was the only prominent member of the National Labour Unioin to remain in active correspondence with the General Council, procured the passing of the following resolution: “The National Labour Union declares its adherence to the principles of the International Workingmen’s Association, and expects to join the said association in a short time.” But the National Labour Union never joined the International, and never developed into a genuinely class-conscious working men’s party. Ere long, the National Labour Union, together with the Labour Reform Party to which it had given birth, slipped down into the morass of reformism. Such was the fate of these and similar organisations in the United States![193]

The Basle Conference sat from September 6th to 12th, 1869[194] Seventy-five delegates assembled: from Great Britain, the 6 members of the General Council, Applegarth, Eccarius, Cowell Stepney, Lessner, Lucraft, and Jung; from France, which sent 26 delegates, among whom we may mention Dereure, Landrin, Chémalé, Murat, Aubry, Tolain, A. Richard, Palix, Varlin, and Bakunin: Belgium sent 5 delegates, among whom were Hins, Brismée, and De Paepe; Austria 2 delegates, Neumayer and Oberwinder; Germany sent 10 delegates, among whom were Becker, Liebknecht, Rittinghausen, and Hess; Switzerland had 22 representatives, among whom were Burkly, Greulich, Fritz Robert, Guillaume, Schwitzguébel, and Perret; Italy sent but one delegate, Caporusso; from Spain there came Farga-Pellicer and Sentinon; and the United States of America was represented by Cameron. Jung was elected chairman of the congress.

One of the most noteworthy questions for discussion was raised by the Zurich delegates. They were supported by the German delegates Liebknecht and Rittinghausen. The question of direct legislation by the people (initiative and referendum) was not on the agenda; but the Zurichers, who had just succeeded in introducing the referendum into their constitution, considered that this would help to solve many social questions, and were naturally eager to acquaint the International with the advantages which the new legislation entailed. Bakunin and Hins fiercely opposed the suggestion, considering that the International should not participate in any political movement aiming merely at the reform of the bourgeois State. In the end it was unanimously agreed to undertake the discussion of this exciting topic after the items already en the agenda had been dealt with – but since of these five items the congress was able to consider three only, the decision remained void of effect. Nevertheless, the passion that flamed up during the discussion of this matter was ominous, indicating as it did that within the International there were now ripening two incompatible political trends. The struggle between these was soon to split the International into two hostile fractions.

Meanwhile, however, all recognised that it was necessary to strengthen the ties uniting the workers of various lands, and to strengthen the General Council, which was the effective link between them. So universal, in view of the weakness of the centripetal forces in the working-class movement of that date, was the recognition of this need, that when Eccarius proposed in the name of the General Council that that body should have the right to expel from the International any section which should act in defiance of its principles, even Bakunin stood shoulder to shoulder with Liebknecht on behalf of strengthening the authority of the General Council. Subsequently, when the Bakuninists opened their campaign against the “tyranny” of the General Council, its supporters charged Bakunin with the design of bringing about the transfer of the Council to Switzerland in order that he might have it under his own control. In a letter written in 1872, Bakunin gave a very simple explanation of his tactics in this matter. He had wanted, he said, to protect the various revolutionary sections, such as the Geneva group of his Alliance (see below), against arbitrary attacks on the part of the local national federations – in this instance, the Swiss Federation. The future was to show that, on every occasion, the General Council would prove more revolutionary than any of the national federations, and that upon this question it would come to the aid of the revolutionary sections. Anyhow, the congress, desiring to increase the unity and organisational stability of the International, adopted the following resolution

“Every new section or society which comes into existence and wishes to join the International must immediately notify the General Council of its adhesion. The General Council is entitled to accept or to refuse the affiliation of every new society or group, subject to an appeal to the next congress. But where federal groups exist, the General Council, before accepting or refusing the affiliation of a new section or society, should consult the group, while still retaining its right to decide the matter provisionally. The General Council is also entitled to suspend, till the forthcoming congress, a section of the International. Every group in its turn, can refuse or expel a section or society, without being able to deprive it of its international status; but the group can ask the General Council to suspend the section or society. In case of any disputes arising between the societies or branches of a national group, or between the respective national groups, the General Council can adjudicate the difference, subject to an appeal to the next congress, which shall give a final decision on the matter.”

Then the Congress went on to consider the questions of principle that were on the agenda.

The first and most important of these questions was that of landed property. As we know, the Brussels Congress had already decided in favour of the collective ownership of land; but in view of the protest made by the opponents of collectivism (who held that the matter had not been adequately discussed), it had been agreed that the problem should be reconsidered at Basle. A special committee consisting of fourteen members submitted the following two resolutions to the Congress

(1) “The Congress declares that society is entitled to abolish individual ownership of the soil and to make the land communal property;

(2) “It declares, further, that it is essential to-day that the land should become communal property.”

As regard the way in which society should organise agricultural production, there were differences of opinion in the committee; but the majority held that “the soil ought to be cultivated and exploited by solidarised communes."[195]

The Parisian Proudhonists rallied to the defence of private property in land, bringing forward a quantity of pathetic nonsense concerning mutual aid, freedom of contract, and the like. The representatives of the General Council, and also Bakunin and Hins, spoke in defence of collectivism [communism]. When, at length, the vote was taken on the first resolution, there were 54 ayes against 4 noes (the latter being all French delegates); 13 abstained (among these were 10 French delegates); 4 were absent. The second resolution was carried by a majority of 53 to 8 (7 of the French delegates voted in the minority): there were 10 abstentions (8 French delegates and 4 absentees. The question of methods of communal agriculture was postponed..

The conflict between the collectivists [communists] and the advocates of private property at the last congresses of the International is described, by Fribourg in the following terms:

“Langlois, Longuct, Chémalé, Tolain, Murat, Tartaret, and Mollin strive, contest every word, yield ground foot by foot only; bat, despite their heroic and brilliant resistance, the discussion is closured; then comes the vote ... , Russo-German communism carries the day[196] ... In vain do the French, and especially the Parisians, appeal to reason, nature, logic, history; and science .... It is evident to all that Karl Marx, the German communist, Bakunin, the Russian barbarian (as he loved to call himself), and Blanqui, the adamantine authoritarian, constitute the omnipotent triumvirate[!]. The International of the French founders is dead, quite dead; nothing is left for the Parisians but to save mutualist socialism from the general shipwreck.[197]

As far as the mutualists were concerned, this was really the end. Henceforward they had lost all hope of getting even with their opponents. There now definitely broke away from them even those elements which had recently shared their outlook, such as Varlin, and a considerable number of the Belgians.

In this manner the International repeatedly and definitively declared itself in favour of collectivism [communism][198] There was no longer any place in the International for bourgeois democrats of Coullery’s kidney, or for individualists of the Proudhonist type. But in place of the vanquished Proudhonists, there was now to appear a more dangerous foe in the form of the anarchists, Bakunin’s disciples. These had learned in the Proudhonist school, but were even more extreme than the Proudhonists in their opposition to “political action” – too extreme for the taste of a good many who called themselves anarchists. The fact was already apparent at the Basle Congress during the discussion of the second matter of principle.

This was the question concerning the right of inheritance, which was raised by some of the French delegates led by Bakunin. Brismee, in the name of the committee which had been appointed to report on the question, informed the congress that the majority of the committee adopted the outlook sponsored by Bakunin, and he placed a resolution to this effect before the delegates. The right of inheritance, constituting as it does an essential feature of individual ownership, has powerfully contributed to the passing of landed property and social wealth into the hands of a few, to the detriment of the many, and consequently it is one of the gravest obstacles to the transference of the land to the collectivity. On the other hand, the right of inheritance, no matter how restricted it may be, by preventing individuals from having absolutely the same possibilities of moral and material development, constitutes an unrighteous privilege which is a permanent menace to social equity. Therefore the congress, having adopted the principle of collective ownership, had, logically, to agree to the complete and radical abolition of the right of inheritance, this abolition being one of the indispensable prerequisites to the enfranchisment of Labour.

In the name of the General Council, Eccarius presented another report, which obviously represented Marx’s views. Herein the right of inheritance was explained to be, not the cause, but the legal outcome of the existing economic system. Consequently, the abolition of the right of inheritance would be the natural result of the general transformation of society leading to the disappearance of private ownership of the means of production. But the abolition of the right of inheritance could not itself serve as the starting-point of the social transformation; the attempt to bring about such a sequence would be fallacious in theory and reactionary in practice. The right of inheritance could only be successfully attacked during a phase of social transition when the old economic base still persisted, but the proletariat had attained enough political power to effect radical modifications in the legal system. Among such transitional measures competent to serve the ends of social enfranchisement, were first, an increase of legacy duty, and secondly, a restriction of the right of bequest.[199]

Bakunin delivered a powerful speech in defence of the committee’s report. While agreeing that what were called legal or political rights had, throughout history, been nothing but the expression or the product of pre-existent facts, he went on to say that it was no less certain that law in its turn became the cause of subsequent facts. Law was thus a very real and very potent phenomenon, and law must be annulled by those who wished to inaugurate a new social system. Thus the right of inheritance, being at first the outcome of the forcible appropriation of natural and social wealth, subsequently became the foundation of the political State and the legally established family, which guaranteed and sanctioned individual ownership. That is why the right of inheritance must be abolished. He maintained that he was eminently practical in his desire that this right should be abolished. It was true that the forcible expropriation of the small agriculturists would arouse strong opposition, and would make the petty landowners side with the reaction. It was therefore necessary, for the time being, to leave them undisturbed in their holdings. But what would happen if the right of bequest were not abolished? The peasants would transmit their holdings to their children, as private property, and with the sanction of the State. But if, while the extant social system were being liquidated, the political and legal liquidation of the State were simultaneously achieved, if the right of inheritance were abolished, what would be left to the peasants? Nothing but the fact of ownership; and this ownership, devoid of legal sanction and deprived of the powerful protection of the State, could easily be modified by the pressure of events and revolutionary forces.

The result of the voting on the committee’s resolution concerning the right of inheritance, was as follows: ayes, 32; noes, 23; abstentions, 13; absent, 7. The voting on the resolution drawn up by the General Council was: ayes, 19; noes, 37; abstentions, 6; absent, 13. Thus even the committee’s resolution failed to secure a clear majority of all the delegates, and therefore it was not formally adopted. But there was a clear majority against the General Council’s proposal, 37 out of a total of 62 delegates present.[200] The first open conflict between Marx and Bakunin had ended in a victory for the latter, and thus it was that the General Council came to realise how grave a danger was germinating in the womb of the International. Such was the beginning of the ruthless struggle between rival trends, a struggle which was to rive the International in sunder.

In the discussion of the importance of societies for resistance (trade unions) to the working-class movement, unanimity was restored. The spokesman of the committee to which this subject had been referred, Pindy from Paris, advocated views resembling those which subsequently became known as “revolutionary syndicalism.” A federation of various working-class organisations, grouped locally in accordance with the towns to which they belonged, would constitute the commune of the future; a federation of industrial unions would constitute the future method of workers’ representation. The existing government would be replaced by councils of the different trades, and by a committee of the delegates from these bodies. The councils and the committee would regulate the labour relationships which would replace the extant political relationships. Without foreseeing what would develop out of these proposals, which seemed acceptable at the first glance, Liebknecht and Greulich contended that the federated trade unions could not be transformed into a government. But all the delegates were agreed as to the need for organising trade unions, and for forming international ties between these unions. A resolution to this effect was unanimously adopted.

The question of credits and the question of education were postponed to the next congress. It was decided that this congress should meet in Paris.

The Basle resolutions concerning the socialisation of landed property aroused extremely hostile comment in bourgeois quarters. But they were enthusiastically welcomed by the working class: On October 13th, there was founded in London, with the participation of ten members of the General Council, the Land and Labour League, whose aim was the nationalisation of the land. Numerous revolutionary demands were put forward by this body.[201] On the other hand, the Eisenachers (whose leader was Wilhelm Liebknecht) could not at first make up their minds to accept the Basle resolution openly, for they were afraid of a break with the petty-bourgeois democrats of South Germany. It was not until six months after the congress that Liebknecht made a public declaration in favour of the Basle resolution. [202] Elsewhere, however, the decisions of the Basle congress aroused enthusiasm, and gave fresh impetus to propaganda. Becker wrote in German a manifesto to the land-workers, explaining the program of agrarian socialism; and this was translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Russian. The propaganda of socialism was thus initiated among the rural population; in Italy and Spain, groups formed by members of the agricultural proletariat became affiliated to the International. The movement was especially alive in Spain, out in that country the propaganda of the international was mainly conducted in the spirit of Bakuninist anarchism. The federation of the Spanish trade unions joined the International. In France, where the wind was setting in favour of a republican revolution, the International made extensive conquests. In Paris, Marseilles, Rouen, and Lyons, and other large centres, there was a great influx of members; and as the outcome of this the authorities prosecuted the internationalists for the third time, a number of the accused being fined and imprisoned. In Belgium, too, the growth of the International continued. The organisation also struck roots in Holland, a number of trade unions becoming affiliated. In Switzerland, when the journal “Tagwacht” was founded in Zurich, there simultaneously came into existence the rudiments of a Swiss Workers’ Party upon the German model. In Austria, likewise, notwithstanding the repressive measures taken by the authorities, the workers’ movement continued to advance. Finally, a Russian section was founded in Geneva, its object being to carry on a campaign against panslavism and to spread the ideas of the International among the Russian and other Slav workers. One of its most important aims was to counteract the anarchist propaganda of Bakunin. The members of this Russian group appointed Karl Marx as their representative on the General Council. [203]