History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff

Chapter Thirteen.
The London Conference of 1871
The Bakuninists

Although the International played only an indirect part in the Commune, nevertheless, after its suppression, a persecution of the Workingmen’s Association was set on foot throughout Europe. The counter-revolutionary government of France was responsible for the first step in this persecution. The Thiers ministry was not content with inflicting ruthless punishment on the Communards who had remained in the homeland; it had the effrontery to demand of the governments abroad the summary extradition of the refugees who had found an asylum in foreign parts; this demand was acquiesced in only by the Belgian and by the Spanish governments. On March 14, 1872, the Dufaure law was passed in France. This law threatened with severe penalties any individual who should be a member of the International.

But the governmental persecutions were as nothing when compared with the internal strife which was disrupting the International. To the extant conflict between the Marxists and the Bakuninists, there was now superadded the friction brought about by the influx of numberless refugees, especially into Switzerland and Great Britain. The tense mood and the anger of these refugees naturally brought a feeling of discord into the local sections of the International. To this must be added the acute poverty which, despite the help forth coming from the General Council, and from local socialists, reigned supreme in the colonies of refugees.

The French refugees in Geneva, led by Maion and Lefrançais, now adhered to the Bakuninist Alliance. In August, 1871, the Genevese branch of the Alliance, having been boycotted by the other branches, declared itself dissolved; but with the help of the French refugees, it speedily re-organised itself as “the section of propaganda and of social revolutionary activity.” The General Council refused to recognise the new organisation, regarding it as still nothing more than an offshoot of the Alliance, and as a focus for the old intrigues. The French branch in London likewise gave the General Council a good deal of trouble. In order to create, in London, a body that should seriously represent the French proletarian movement, the General Council appealed to many of the Communard refugees. Thus, among the internationalists, Charles Longuet, Theiss, Seraillier, etc., were approached; among the Blanquists, Vaillant, Arnaud, Ranvier, Cournet, etc. All these men, in so far as they recognised the necessity for the seizure of political power by the workers, were supporters of the General Council against the Bakuninists.

Since it had been impossible to convene the International congress at the agreed time (owing, as we have seen, to the Franco-German war and to the suppression of the Commune), the General Council decided, with the consent of the majority of the federations, to call a conference in London.[249] This conference was held from September 17 to 23, 1871. It consisted of twenty-three persons, thirteen of whom were members of the General Council, seven of them being the corresponding secretaries, Marx (for Germany), Engels (for Italy), Eccarius (for the U.S.), Hales (for Britain), Rochat (for Holland), Cohn (for Denmark) and Zabicki (for Poland), these seven all had votes, but the remaining six members of the General Council were present only in a consultative capacity; these were Serraillier, Vaillant, Bastelica (the representatives of the Paris Commune), Mottershead, Frankel, and Jung; there were six Belgian delegates, De Paepe, Verrycken, Steens, Coenen, Fluse, and Herman; two Swiss delegates, Utin and Peret; and one Spanish delegate Anselmo Lorenzo; the twenty third delegate, described by Guillaume as “an unknown person with no mandate,” came from Bordeaux.

The most urgent question before the conference was the imminence of a split in the international. It is true that the conference decided certain other questions, for instance: concerning the formation of separate working women’s branches although both sexes were still to participate as members of the ordinary branches; concerning the need for an earnest attempt to collect statistics about the position of the workers in all lands; concerning a carefully planned international organisation of trade-union leagues, whose executives were to keep in touch with the General Council; concerning the need for propaganda among agricultural workers in order to induce them to join the International. But these were subordinate questions, and it was not they which made the conference important in the history of the International. The struggle with anarchism (the influence of which increased day by day), threatening the complete destruction of the International; the strengthening of the organisation of the International and of the General Council; the checking of the centrifugal forces which were germinating within the International; and, finally, a definite decision upon the fiercely disputed topic of participation in the political struggle such were the main concerns of the London Conference.

The conference approved the inclusion of representatives of the French refugees (Communards) in the General Council. But, in order to defend itself from influx of spurious delegates, the General Council urged upon the conference the necessity of restricting the number of co-opted representatives from the various countries. They ought to be co-opted on a basis of proportional representation. The central committees of the different countries were to appoint the federal councils or committees; the local branches, sections, or groups, and their committees, must henceforward be named branches, sections, and groups of the International with the addition of the name of the town or locality in which their activities were centred. In addition they were forbidden to admit to their ranks any sectarian organisations going by such names as positivist, mutualist, collectivist, or communist societies, or independent groups of “sections of propaganda,” and so forth, which arrogated to themselves special aims outside the general aim of all the branches of the International.[250] An exception to this rule was made in favour of those countries where the undisguised organisation of branches of the International was rendered impossible by governmental persecution. It was decided that in such cases the local groups of the International could adopt special names, but on no account were the branches of the International to be organised as secret societies.[251]

In addition, the conference discussed the question of the Bakuninist Alliance. Starting from the fact that the Genevese section of the Alliance (the only one which did not function in secret) had declared itself dissolved (this event was communicated to the General Council in a letter from the secretary, Zhukoffsky, dated August 10, 1871), and also taking into consideration the above-mentioned regulation concerning the affiliation of local groups and sections of a sectarian character working for ends outside the general aims of the International, and, further, recalling the decision of the Basle Congress which had granted the General Council the right to affiliate or to refuse to affiliate to the ranks of the international any society or group, pending an appeal to the next general congress – the London Conference declared “the question of the Alliance of the Socialist Democracy to be settled.”[252]

But the General Council could hardly have supposed that by a purely formal pronouncement of this sort it had once and for all defeated “the enemy within the gates” of the International. The further course of events was to show that the anarchists, far from laying down their arms after the London Conference, began thenceforward to wage open war against the International. Their action in this matter was to lead to the disruption of the International Workingmen’s Association. One of the most important centres of Bakuninist propaganda was, as I have already pointed out, the Jura Federation in Switzerland. The London Conference discussed the question of this Federation. Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds were the foci of this organisation, which claimed the title of Federation of Romand Switzerland. The Jura Federation conducted a savage campaign against the old Romand Federation whose centre was at Geneva, and which continued to stand by the General Council. Dealing with the split in the Swiss sections, the delegates, above all, challenged the Jura attempt to discredit the competence of the London Conference. They declared that this conference possessed wider competence than the General Council, in such matters. Now, the Basle Congress had resolved that, should dissensions arise in the various national sections, the General Council should have the right to settle such disputes; its decision could be appealed against at the next congress; and the general congress had the last word in the matter. Passing on to deal with the second contention of the Jura Federation (that it had received no invitation to attend the special conference which was to meet in London on September 17th) the London Conference declared that Jung, the corresponding secretary for Switzerland, had not issued an invitation to the committee of the Jura sections for the following reasons: “In flagrant violation of the decision of the General Council on June 28th, 1870, this committee... continues to call itself the committee of the Romand Federation. The committee has the right to appeal to the next general congress against the decision of the General Council, but it has not the right to ignore such a decision.” Having done so, the committee had no legal status in relation to the General Council, and the corresponding secretary had been well-advised not to issue an invitation. The General Council recognised the Genevese committee as the nucleus of the Romand Federation. The conference then declared that, in view of the persecutions launched against the International, it was of supreme importance that unity and a spirit of solidarity should animate the workers. It further urged the “valiant workers” of the highland branches to rally to the Romand Federation. If this amalgamation could not be effected, the Federation of the highland branches must take the name of the Jura [Jurassian] Federation. The conference further declared that, henceforward, the General Council should denounce and repudiate all the journals unwarrantably giving themselves out to be organs of the International, and which, by following the example of the “Progrès” of Locle, and “Solidarité” of La Chaux-de-Fonds, should publicly discuss in their columns questions which ought rightly to be dealt with only in the privacy of the local committees, the federal committees, or the General Council, or in the private sessions of the federal or general congresses.

In order to strengthen the British branches of the International, the congress resolved that the General Council should advise the London branches to form a federal committee for London which, after having communicated with the provincial branches and with the affiliated societies, and after having received their adhesion, should be recognised by the General Council as the federal council of England.

The Conference declared that the German workers had done their duty during the Franco-German war. It sent fraternal thanks to the members of the Spanish federation for their work in organising the International, dissociated itself from the “Nechaeff conspiracy,” which had fraudulently usurped and exploited the name of the International,[253] and commissioned Utin to publish a summary account of the Nechaeff trial.[254] Finally, it was left to the discretion of the General Council to summon the next international congress at a time and place which would seem most appropriate. If the congress could not be summoned, then the General Council was to call a conference which should act in its stead.

The fundamental question of the political struggle was also discussed at the conference. The political struggle had assumed a peculiarly aggressive character after the Paris Commune, and had made plain the need for creating an independent political party of the workers. Such a party was already taking shape in Germany, and its initial activities, as we have seen, had met with considerable success. The anarchists were not impressed by this success, but, on the contrary, they redoubled their efforts to combat any political achievements, and regarded political action as a divergence from the right proletarian path. Inasmuch as the conference in general had had to fight the anarchists on the organisational and other fields, it could not fail to discuss the question of the political struggle.

In view of the wording of the Address and Provisional Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association, and also of the decision of the Lausanne Congress, to the effect that the social emancipation of the workers is inseparable from their political emancipation and from the conquest of political power; and in view of the unbridled activities of the reactionaries, who were forcibly suppressing all the efforts of the workers to achieve their own liberation, and were by brute force maintaining class distinctions and the consequent political dominance of the propertied classes – the London Conference decided that, against the collective power of the propertied classes, the proletariat could only act as a class by forming itself into a distinct political party opposed to all the old political parties that had been formed by the propertied classes; that this formation of a proletarian political party was an indispensable preliminary to the triumph of the social revolution and to the achievement of its supreme end, the abolition of classes; that the union of working-class forces which had already been achieved by means of the industrial struggle, must also serve as a lever which the working masses could use in their struggle against the political power of the landlords and capitalists. For these reasons, the conference reminded the members of the International that, in the fighting activities of the working class, industrial action and political action must always go hand in hand.

The Bakuninists did not consider themselves vanquished. On the contrary, they were so convinced that the General Council had decided to pass from the defensive to the attack, that they boldly took up the gauntlet. On November 12, 1871, they held a congress at Sonvillier which was attended by the Swiss sections of the Alliance. Fourteen delegates (among whom were Guillaume, Spichiger, and Schwitzguébel) represented eight sections. The Genevese Section of Propaganda and Social Revolutionary Action, though not forming part of the Alliance, sent two delegates who were accepted as members of the congress. One was Jules Guesde (who, though at the time we are now dealing with, he inclined to the anarchism of the political refugees, subsequently founded the Marxist Parti Ouvrier in France), and Nicholas Zhukoffsky, a Russian refugee and friend of Bakunin. The congress declared that the old Romand Federation was dissolved (which pronouncement did not, it need hardly be said, prevent the Federation from continuing to exist!); that the anarchist sections were its legitimate successor; and that the new body should be named the Jura Federation – precisely what had been proposed at the London Conference. The congress then drew up the rules of the new federation, founding them upon the principle of full autonomy of the branches.

The most important result of the congress was the issue of a “Circular to all the Federations of the International Workingmen’s Association.” In this document the federations of the international were urged to join hands with the Jura Federation in order to insist upon the calling of the general congress as soon as possible. The power placed in the hands of the General Council, by the resolutions passed at the International congresses, had corrupted it, and had tempted it into dangerous paths. The General Council was composed of men who had been led, in the ordinary course of affairs, to try to impose their special program on the International, and to make the Association adopt their personal views. These men had come to regard any opinion which did not coincide with their own as “heretical.” Thus there had gradually come to be established a sort of orthodoxy, with headquarters in London, whose representatives were the members of the General Council. The natural result of this state of things had been that the General Council met with opposition. Irresistible logic drove the Council to try and break this opposition. Conflicts had ensued, and cabals had been formed. The General Council had become a focus of intrigue, and, at last, war had been declared within the Association. During the two years which had elapsed since the Basle Congress, the General Council had been left to its own devices. The Franco-German war had served as an excuse for not calling the international congress in 1870; in 1871 this congress had been replaced by a “secret conference” convened by the General Council. This conference could not be said to represent the International, seeing that many sections, the Jura Federation among others, had not been invited. The conference had passed resolutions which seriously infringed the general rules of the International, resolutions tending to make of the International a hierarchical and authoritarian organisation of disciplined sections entirely under the control of the General Council which might at its pleasure refuse to admit them to affiliation or might hold up their activities. To crown all, the London Conference had decided that the General Council was to fix the date and place of the next international congress or of the conference which was to replace it.

“This decision threatens us with the complete suppression of the international congresses ... and their replacement, at the behest of the General Council, by secret conferences similar to the one just held in London ... We do not wish to charge the General Council with bad intentions. The persons who compose it are the victims of a fatal necessity: they wanted, in all good faith, and in order that their particular doctrines might triumph, to introduce into the International the authoritarian spirit; circumstances have seemed to favour such a tendency, and we regard it as perfectly natural that this school, whose ideal is the conquest of political power by the working class, should believe that the International, after the recent course of events, must change its erstwhile organisation and be transformed into a hierarchical organisation guided and governed by an executive. But though we may recognise that such tendencies and facts exist, we must nevertheless fight against them in the name of the social revolution for which we are working, and whose program is expressed in the words, ‘Emancipation of the workers by the workers themselves,’ independently of all guiding authority, even though such authority should have been consented to and appointed by the workers themselves. We demand that the principle of the autonomy of the sections shall be upheld in the International, just as it has been heretofore recognised as the basis of our Association; we demand that the General Council, whose functions have been tampered with by the administrative resolutions of the Basle Congress, shall return to its normal function, which is to act as a correspondence and statistical bureau. The unity which the Council is endeavouring to establish by means of centralisation and dictatorship, we shall realise by means of a free federation of autonomous groups. The society of the future will be nothing more than a universalisation of the organisation which the International will have adopted as its own. Our task is to make such an organisation coincide as closely as possible with our ideals. How could we expect an equalitarian and free society to issue from an authoritarian organisation? Such a thing would be impossible. The International, that germ of the human society of the future, must be ..... a faithful representation of our principles of freedom of federation; it must reject any principle which may tend towards authoritarianism and dictatorship.”

Thus we see that the circular confirms our supposition that in the case of each of the conflicting sections of the International, there was an intimate association between program and organisational structure. The Jura circular emphasises the tact that the communist program of the Marxists, and in especial its recognition of the need for the conquest of political power by the working class, must inevitably lead to the creation of a centralised and disciplined organisation (which the Jura Federation calls “hierarchical”), administered and guided by an executive styled by the name of the General Council. The anarchist program, on the other hand, rejecting any kind of centralisation for the organisation as a whole, likewise refused to allow of any proposal for centralisation to be included in the rules of the organisation. It advocated complete autonomy alike for individuals and for groups, and it therefore recommended that a similar autonomy should be granted to the branches of the International.

The congress decided to have the circular printed and sent to all the countries where branches of the International were in existence. It was further resolved to publish a “Memoir” which should enlighten the other national sections of the International as to the events which had led to the split in the old Romand Federation, and explain the reasons for some of the conflicts raging within the ranks of the Association itself. This “Memoir of the Jura Federation” did not see the light of day until two years had elapsed, that is to say, not until after the split in the International had become an established fact.

In addition to sending the Sonvillier circular to every national section of the International, Bakunin and his friends Guillaume, Zhukoffsky, Bastelica, and others, kept up a lively correspondence with comrades of their way of thinking in Italy, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, and elsewhere. The results of the agitation against the General Council and its tactics soon made themselves felt in many lands.[255] In Spain,[256] the first groups of internationalists were formed in the years 1868 and 1809, as the result of a visit paid to that country by the Italian deputy Fanelli, one of the founders of the Bakuninist Alliance. The first group was formed in Madrid in 1868; the second was formed in Barcelona in 1869. The program adopted by these groups was anarchist, the first Spanish internationalists being under the impression that the Bakuninist program was the program of the International itself. When the legal organisation of the Alliance was dissolved, and when it was proposed that the local groups should affiliate to the International, some of the Spanish Bakuninists demurred to such a submission, and entered into correspondence with the members of the Genevese section of the Alliance (which section was secretly acting as the centre of the Alliance). In 1870, after the Basle Congress, during the course of which they had become intimate friends of Bakunin, Farga-Pellicer, and Sentiñon, aided by friends in Barcelona, founded a secret group which adopted the name and the program of the Bakuninist Alliance of the Socialist Democracy. This group became the focus of anarchist propaganda in Spain. Similar groups were soon formed in Madrid, Valencia, Seville, Cordova, and so forth.

In addition to the groups affiliated to the Alliance and led by Mora, there also existed in certain towns the usual sections of the International. As the struggle between the Bakuninists and the General Council became more acute, so the conflicts between the anarchist groups and the sections of the International in Spain grew more bitter likewise. When, at the end of 1877, Marx’s son-in-law Lafargue visited Spain, matters came to a head. Lafargue, recognising that anarchism spelt ruin to the working-class movement, declared open war against it. He got into touch with the Spanish Federal Council of the International, which had been elected by the Valencia Congress of the Spanish branches in September, 1871, and he found an active collaborator in one of the members of the council, Jose Mesa, who acted as editor of the official organ of the International in Spain, the “Emancipacion.”

The persecution which was let loose on the Spanish internationalists in January 1872 by the Sagasta ministry, did not succeed in stemming the growth of the International in the Iberian peninsula, though it exacerbated the conflict within the organisation. In view of the threatening attitude of the government, the Federal Council realised that the secret organisation known as the Alianza must be immediately dissolved if the work of the International was to be continued. The local federation of Madrid, in which the anarchists formed a majority, excluded from its ranks six members of the staff of the “Emancipacion,” who, besides being collaborators on this paper, were likewise members of the Spanish Federal Council. In April, 1872, the Spanish federation held its annual congress at Saragossa. An endeavour was made to patch up the internal quarrels by proposing that two old time members be re-elected to the Federal Council, and by urging the Madrid federation and the “Emancipacion” to settle their differences. But, in spite of this conciliatory attitude, strife continued. Lafargue and his friends still demanded the expulsion of the members of the secret Alianza from the ranks of the International. When the Federal Council, which was at this time transferred to Valencia, refused to interfere in the matter, Lafargue and his colleagues founded a new Madrid federation, which was not recognised by the Spanish Federal Council, but which was recognised by the General Council in London. Henceforward there existed two hostile organisations in Spain; the preponderant current of opinion being in favour of anarchism.[257]

Bakunin had been in close touch with the secret brotherhoods in Italy,[258] ever since the middle sixties. His polemic with Mazzini[259] after the Commune of Paris, strengthened the bonds which already existed between him and the younger Italian revolutionists, who had been greatly disenchanted with bourgeois-republican idealism, and were endeavouring to join up with the working-class world. After the congress of November 1, 1871, held in Rome by the Mazzinist party, many of the internationalists expressed themselves dissatisfied with its conclusions. Among those who voiced a protest against the congress were Carlo Cafiero (who was at that time a Marxist and in correspondence with Engels), Alberto Tucci, and De Montel. The veteran Garibaldi took up the cudgels in favour of the new current of opinion, exclaiming: “The International is the sun of the future!” As a counterblast to the petty-bourgeois Mazzinist organisations, there was formed at Bologna on December 4, 1871, a society calling itself “Il Fascio operaio” (unification of labour). These Fasci operaie soon spread to many towns throughout Italy. It was here that Andrea Costa, then a student at the Bologna university, began his political career. This young man was destined to play an important part in the development of the socialist movement in Italy. He at first held anarchist views, from these he passed to accept the Marxist theories, and, finally became a champion of class-collaboration.

The Sonvillier circular appeared in several Italian newspapers accompanied by sympathetic commentary. But the majority of the Italian internationalists, not being sufficiently informed as to the details of the fight between the General Council and the Bakuninists, knew not to whose side they were to rally. The Fascio operaio which had been inaugurated at the Bologna conference of December, 1871 to fight the Mazzinist party, now held a second conference in the same town on March 17, 1872. The delegates considered the question, whether the Fascio operaio should recognise the leadership of the General Council in London, or that of the Jura Federation.[260] The conference came to the decision that both the General Council and the Jura Federation were no more than corresponding and statistical bureaux, and instructed the Facio branches to get into touch with both bodies. But gradually the balance went in favour of Bakuninism, which was more accordant with the social conditions prevailing in the Italy of those days. On August 4, 1872, a conference of the twenty branches of the International in Italy took place at Rimini. Hitherto they had worked independently of one another, but they now decided to form an Italian Federation. The delegates declared that the London Conference of September, 1871, had tried to force the Association into accepting an authoritarian gospel which was “part of the program of the German communists”; that the reactionary attitude of the General Council had aroused the revolutionary antagonism of the Belgians, the French, the Spanish, the Slavs, the Italians, and sections of the Swiss workers. The conference proposed that the General Council should be suppressed, and that a revision of the general rules of the organisation should be undertaken. Finally it was also decided not to send any delegates to the Hague Congress, which had just been convened by the General Council.

In Belgium, likewise, the internationalists were beginning to turn their sympathies towards the antagonists of the General Council. The annual congress of the Belgian federation took place an December 24 and 25, 1871, in Brussels. The Congress started with a discussion of the problem which was at that time agitating the whole International. After long deliberation, a resolution was adopted protesting against the calumnies spread abroad by a reactionary press with the object of representing the International Workingmen’s Association as “a despotic society subject to a discipline and to a word of command issued from headquarters, and applied to all the members by means of a hierarchical decree.” The resolution went on to declare that the International, desiring to react against despotism and centralisation, had always believed in attuning its organisation to its principles, and that a General Council had never been anything more than a centre for correspondence and information. The Belgian federation invited all other national federations to make a similar declaration. It concluded by declaring that a revision of the general rules was essential, and empowered the Belgian federal council to draft new rules, which could be placed on the agenda of the forthcoming international congress.

This resolution was so ambiguous that both parties to the dispute were able to count it an asset and a triumph. On the one hand, it clearly affirmed the principles of autonomy and decentralisation of the branches and the federations, and declared that the General Council was nothing more than an information bureau. In this way the Belgians proved their solidarity with the Jura Federation. On the other hand, the resolution did not accuse the General Council or the London Conference of laving infringed the principle of autonomy; and the supporters of the General Council were therefore entitled to consider the resolution a victory for their side. In actual fact, however, the Belgians had no intention of rallying to the support of the General Council, as was shown by the subsequent course of events. Their sympathy with the anarchist outlook was further demonstrated in their resolve to revise the general rules of the Association. At the following congress of the Belgian Federation held in Brussels on July 14, 1872, the federal council submitted its draft of the general rules to discussion. Among other recommendations it was proposed to suppress the General Council as a useless and even dangerous institution. The majority of the delegates, however, considered that such a measure would be too drastic, and favoured a suggestion made by the Liege branch that that the General Council should be re-organised. The powers of that body were to be curtailed, and it would have no right to interfere in the private affairs of the individual branches.

Everywhere, a tendency towards decentralisation was making itself felt. In certain ways the International was still scoring points. It could register a spread of socialist ideas, as, for instance, in Denmark, where, since 1871, several branches had been formed; and in Sweden, to which country the movement had spread in 1872. On the other hand, the antagonism to the General Council was steadily growing, and appeared even in Great Britain which hitherto had been one of the firmest supporters of the Council.

Down to the time of the London Conference, Great Britain had had no federal council; the part that such a body should have played, was undertaken by the General Council in London. The latter had pronounced itself against the formation of a special British federal council, because it believed that the imminent social revolution in Europe would start in industrial England. In the “confidential communication” of the General Council, Marx, rebutting the Bakuninist accusation that the General Council was wholly opposed to the inauguration of a special federal council for Great Britain, declared that, from time to time, the same proposal had been brought forward by some of the British members of the General Council, but that almost invariably it had been unanimously rejected.

At the meeting of the General Council on January 1, 1870, a resolution (Guillaume says it was penned by Marx, and the statement is presumably correct) was passed, and was sent to the Federal Committee of Romand Switzerland in Geneva. Part of this resolution runs as follows: “Although the initial revolutionary impetus will probably come from France, England will have to be the lever which will bring about a really serious economic revolution. England is the only country in which peasants no longer exist, and where the ownership of the land is concentrated in very few hands. It is the only country where the capitalist method – that is to say, where associated labour upon a large scale under capitalist entrepreneurs – has made itself master of nearly the whole of production. It is the only country where the large majority of the population consists of wage labourers. It is the only country where the class struggle and the organisation of the working class by the trade unions have attained a fair degree of maturity and universality. Britain, thanks to its domination of the world market, is the only country in which every change in economic conditions exercises an immediate influence all over the world. Though it be true that landlordism and capitalism have their roots in this country, it is here that the material conditions requisite for their destruction are ripest. The General Council being in the fortunate position of having its hand upon this great lever of the proletarian revolution, how foolish, we might almost say, how criminal, it would be to allow that lever to pass under the control of purely British hands! The English have all the materials requisite for the social revolution; what they lack is the spirit of generalisation and revolutionary fervour.[261]

Only the General Council can supply this lack; and only the General Council, therefore, can quicken the genuinely revolutionary movement in Britain, and consequently throughout the world ....

“If we were to form a federal council in Britain, apart from the General Council, what would be the immediate result? Sandwiched between the General Council of the International and the General Council of the trade unions, the federal council would have no authority whatever, but the General Council would forfeit the power of handling the great lever ... Britain must not simply be treated as one country among several. It must receive special treatment as the metropolis of capitalism.”[262]

It is clear that Marx was aware of the possibility of conflicts arising between the central committee of an international workers’ party (which in his view was or should be represented by the General Council), and the future central committee of a British labour party (which, again according to Marx, would be formed from the British federal council). The need for working from one centre and of operating the same lever, i.e., the British working class, would lead the two bodies, declared Marx, to perform the same tasks, and in such circumstances they would have to depend upon the same basic source of power and influence, and must inevitably come into collision in the course of their operations. The danger would grow more menacing as the divergence of opinions on the political held increased between the General Council and the British federal council; between the opposing embodiments of internationalism on the one hand and nationalism on the other. In consequence of the opportunism of the leaders of the working-class movement of those days (an opportunism Marx was quick to detect), the probability of such a conflict became almost a certainty. While the conflicts that might arise between the two centres appeared in general so undesirable and so dangerous to the cause of revolution, the danger seemed all the more threatening in the case of Great Britain, which, in consequence of the advanced development of capitalism within its borders, appeared to Marx to be the most important motive force propelling society towards a revolutionary change.

But when, after the fall of the Paris Commune, it became clear that the first step must be the creation of an independent political workers’ party, and that the centre of gravity of the proletarian movement was being transferred to the continent, then Marx was the foremost in recognising that it was necessary to set up, in Great Britain as elsewhere, a federal council, which might prove to be the germ of the British workers’ party. The London Conference, therefore, decided in favour of forming a British federal council.

The resolution was carried into effect at the end of October, 1871, when a temporary committee was set up in London under the chairmanship of Maltman Barry and with John Hales acting as secretary. As soon as the local branches of the International in Britain and the General Council had approved of the rules drawn up by the temporary committee, a permanent federal council was elected. The first activities of the new body were crowned with success. Many new branches were formed,[263] and ever increasing numbers of trade unionists rallied to the International. In Ireland, too, the international soon had its branches, in the defence of which the General Council took up a decidedly militant attitude towards the British Government.[264] However, the Irish organisations did not form a constituent part of the British Federation. They were directly under the control of the General Council. Still, as events were to show, all endeavours for the creation of an independent workers’ party in Great Britain, competent to confront the bourgeoisie both the economic and the political fields, proved unsuccessful during this epoch.

I have already shown that the British workers contemplated the International with a severely practical eye. They looked upon it as an organisation capable of preventing the importation of cheap foreign labour, and able to assist in the struggle for electoral rights and the introduction of reform legislation. As Marx observed: “The trade unions ... will hold aloof from the International until they fall upon evil times. Then they will come rushing to the International for help.”[265] And, indeed, when strikes took place, the International actively supported the strikers and prevented the introduction of strike-breakers from abroad. But the International did not prove strong enough to wean the British proletariat from bourgeois outlooks and to unite it for the general political struggle. Content with their victories in the industrial arena, and fearful lest a rupture with the bourgeoisie should expose their organisations to reprisals, the British workers, and especially their leaders, were already in those days consolidating themselves into a moderate and cautious working-class bureaucracy which acknowledged the need for joint political action with the liberal bourgeoisie. Concerning such leaders of the movement, Marx declared at the Hague Congress of the International, that it might be reckoned an honour not to be a recognised leader of the workers seeing that all the “recognised leaders” were to be found supporting the liberal party. As typical leaders we may mention Odger and his friends who, in order to please the bourgeois hypocrites, resigned from the International as a demonstration against the “horrors” of the Paris Commune.[266]

Odger and Co. were merely the first rats to forsake a ship which they considered both incommodious and risky. The Act of 1871, which, as we have already learned, had legalised the trade unions but had at the same time imposed grave penalties on those who should promote strikes, was hailed by leaders such as Applegarth as a tremendous victory, for it enabled them to take a rest, and to transfer their energies to peaceful organisation. This was the beginning of the era of “class-collaboration” which characterised the whole period of “working-class liberalism.”

Since British manufacturers still continued to flood the world market, the capitalists found it an easy task to capture the working-class aristocracy, which at that time was organised in craft unions. In addition, there was a revival of industrial activity following upon the crisis of 1866. The latter had greatly sharpened the conflict between workers and employers, had led to frequent strikes, and turned the workers towards the International; but the industrial revival had the effect of a soothing syrup as far as the British proletariat was concerned. In those days it was still possible to hope for a few improvements in the workers’ lot without resorting to strikes, and such a possibility was not long in turning the leaders of the trade-union movement away from the more forcible methods of fighting.

The workers’ organisations, which were mainly composed of members of the working-class aristocracy, became more and more corroded with opportunism. The trade-union leaders, who not long since had been fairly radical in outlook, were not slow to change their tone and to adopt a more conservative attitude than that of the broad masses of trade unionists. It not infrequently happened that the workers struck in defiance of the wishes of their leaders, who, for their part, did their utmost to prevent the strike, and to cut it short. With the growth of the unions and the accumulation of trade-union funds, and with the development of a trade-union bureaucracy imbued with a conservative outlook and inspired by a philosophy of class collaboration, an antagonistic attitude towards strikes became increasingly manifest. Other methods were preferred, such as peaceful negotiation, courts of arbitration, mediation, etc., etc. The trade-union leaders adopted the point of view of the capitalists, namely that wages must be determined by the amount of profit and the general state of the market. Hence arose the idea of the “sliding scale” of wages, an idea which embodied the triumph of bourgeois political economy over proletarian political economy.

Adaptation to bourgeois outlooks was not only apparent in the realm of economics, but likewise in the realm of politics. The notion of the seizure of power by the working class, which had been promulgated by the Chartists, was now quite forgotten. Not only was the fight for universal suffrage abandoned, but even the thought of creating an independent workers’ party which should defend the general interests of the working class in the face of a united bourgeoisie was no longer entertained. The idea of running independent labour candidates in opposition to the extant bourgeois parties of conservatives and liberals almost fell through. The very few representatives of the workers who by a turn of fate were returned to parliament, slavishly licked the boots of the bourgeoisie, and usually came to form a part (and not even as a rule the most advanced part) of the liberal party. Some were actually working-class conservatives! In a word, they were part and parcel of the bourgeois order.

The bourgeoisie, following suit, now began to change its attitude towards the workers, or rather towards the leaders of the proletariat, who, by their tactics of class collaboration, had won the gratitude of the governing class. Formerly the capitalists had been used to treat all the workers as outlaws, pariahs, and serfs. Assured of the pliability of the working-class aristocracy and of the “reasonableness” of its leaders, they began to allow these leaders a very restricted share in social life. The trade-union chiefs, who until recently had been regarded as dangerous revolutionists, now came to participate in the institutions of capitalist society, not as delegates of the workers, but as nominees of the Government. They became members of school boards, sat as poor law guardians, took part in royal commissions, and were appointed to governmental posts. Thus the appearance of present-day leaders of the Labour Party, such as Henderson and Thomas, in the role of privy councillors is nothing so very new after all. The adaptation of labour leaders to the bourgeois regime is not without its precedent, and may be traced back to the late sixties of the nineteenth century. Lucraft, who had left the General Council in so melodramatic a manner, now took his seat on a school board side by side with Lord Lawrence. Another trade-union leader, Applegarth, who was a member of the General Council, was in 1872 appointed a member of the royal commission on the Contagious Diseases Acts, being thus the first British working man to be styled by the sovereign as “our Trusty and Well-beloved.” In fact, the ground was already being prepared for the possibility that labour leaders might become “His Majesty’s ministers.” We see, therefore, how correct was Marx’s somewhat acrimonious declaration about the “so-called leaders” of the British working class. The words which were uttered when Odger made his exit from the General Council may even more aptly be applied to the other leaders

“He made use of the International in order to win the confidence of the working class, and he left the ranks of the Association as soon as he was convinced that the principles upon which the organisation was founded would be a stumbling block in the way of his political career.”

At first the leaders of the workers accommodated themselves to bourgeois life in the industrial and political fields; this was followed by a further adaptation on the ideological plane – in the realm of ideas. By utilising the whole of their powerful apparatus for corrupting the minds of the people, the governing class set about perverting the labour leaders, instilling into them the spirit of hypocrisy, of servility, of spiritual aridity, and forcing them to bow before the conventional “proprieties” of the bourgeois world. The representitives of the workers this became “respectable,” “decorous,” “honourable,” “sane,” citizens, entitled to style themselves “Mr.,” and as such they were admitted into the front ranks of capitalist society, where they became the watch-dogs of the existing order. The International, which they had never been prepared to use as a battering-ram, could henceforward only be a drag on their movements, and could serve only to “compromise” them in the eyes of the bourgeoisie. Any pretext would do to sever their connexion.

In such circumstances, and in view of the turncoat policy of the working-class leaders, the attempt to create in Great Britain a workers’ party that should be independent of all other political parties, a party inspired with revolutionary zeal, was foredoomed to failure. The attempt was actually made, and at first there seemed to be some prospect of success, for, although the leaders went over to the enemy, the masses (those sections of the masses which had been influenced by the ideology of the International) did not immediately follow the example of the leaders by deserting the International Workingmen’s Association.

The first congress of the British Federal Council of the International met at Nottingham on July 21, 1872. It declared that an independent working-class party was essential to the conduct of the political struggle of the proletariat; it produced a program which, generally speaking, was inspired with socialist ideas; and it urged the trade unions to join the new workers’ party and the International. Furthermore, the congress expressed its agreement with the resolutions of the London Conference; and it protested against the rumours current in the bourgeois press concerning a split in the International. In these respects, the first steps of the British federation were fairly successful. Nevertheless, certain tendencies became obvious at the Nottingham Congress which threatened to split the International. Thus, during the discussion concerning the rules for the British federation, which were in general based upon those of the International as a whole, Hales proposed an amendment to the effect that the British Federal Council might eater into direct relationships with the federations of other lands and ignore the General Council.[267] The amendment was adopted in spite of a certain amount of opposition. Another resolution adopted by the Nottingham Congress was aimed directly at the General Council (although the proposers formally denied that such was their intention). This motion was to curtail the powers of the General Council in the matter of the exclusion of such sections of the International as had infringed the rules and constitution of that organisation.[268] All this only goes to prove that the British federation had joined the ranks of the opponents to the General Council.

Even more dangerous was the marked divergence of views between the British Federal Council and the General Council in the matter of program and tactics – the real difference being, here as always, upon matters of organisation. The leading part in the British Federal Council was played (as it had been played at the Nottingham Congress) by the trade-union leaders, who in subsequent years were successful in reversing the natural course of evolution by making the proletariat adopt “working-class liberalism”; at the same time they paved the way for their own migration into the liberal camp. Hales, Eccarius, Burnett, and others, though they were working in the British Federal Council, and gave to that body such influence as it possessed, differed but little in essence from Allen, Odger, Lucraft, and Applegarth. The members of the latter group differed from those of the former in that they accomplished their evolution more rapidly, and earlier left their “revolutionary” chrysalis in order to become “liberal” butterflies. The others were bound to tread the same path in due time. Their exit from the International marked a definite stage in their bourgeois metamorphosis, but the causes of that metamorphosis were deep-rooted in their nature.

In the very earliest days of the activity of the first Federal Council, it received a delegation from the bourgeois-democratic Land and Labour League, asking the council for aid in the cause of republican democracy. Upon the proposal of Hales, the Federal Council acceded to the request of the delegation. The incident is characteristic, inasmuch as, to the very last, the British Federal Council could never properly differentiate itself from the League in question, and from similar bodies of a non-proletarian type. For this very reason, the Federal Council could do nothing to counteract bourgeois influences in the trade unions; nor could it offer any serious opposition to the liberal trend in the trade unions, whose leaders were now rubbing shoulders with the bourgeois liberals in various organisations working for electoral reform. Even Eccarius, a veteran from the days of the Communist League, a sometime Marxist, came at last to support these dubious activities of the British Federal Council, and began to preach collaboration with the bourgeois democrats in order to promote working-class parliamentary candidatures. In these circumstances, what was to be expected of the other working-class leaders, breathing a “liberal-labour” atmosphere and poisoned by its fumes? When the effects of the industrial crisis wore off and the ferment among the labouring masses subsided, these leaders entered the fold of the “Great Liberal Party” which they regarded as the only source of salvation.