PART TWO. History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff

Chapter Thirteen. International Socialist Congress at Chur (Coire)

AFTER the Ghent Congress, the socialists continued to cherish the idea of calling a new international socialist congress. Once more, on this second occasion, the initiative came from the Belgian socialists. At the Brussels Annual Congress in 1880, a committee was elected with the Instruction to collaborate with the socialists of other lands in preparing for an international socialist congress. In due course this committee addressed an appeal to the socialists of the Old and the New World, from which the following passages may be quoted

“Poverty is universal. According to the bourgeois economists, this is an inevitable evil. We socialists know that the teaching of bourgeois economic science is persistently false. We know the causes of the evil and how to fight it. Why should we wait? The wide diffusion of our ideas: the vast movements involving territories that extend from the banks of the Tagus to the banks of the Volga, from the British Isles to the Danubian principalities – does not all this bear witness to the fact that a new 1789 is at hand, a great rising of all the people against the old order of society? Brothers, in face of this great event, it behoves you to draw instinctively together. Everywhere the old quarrels are being made up, everywhere the old discords are being resolved into harmonies, everywhere the workers are joining hands, everywhere hearts are beating in unison. In the proletariat of the Old World and the New, a spirit of concord prevails. Among the suffering and the oppressed there is increasing hatred of their exploiters, increasing distrust of their capitalist oppressors. Do you not feel, brothers, that this is the decisive hour? The essential thing is that we should take some practical steps to revive the International Workingmen’s Association ... More loudly than ever before, raise the old war-cry: ‘Workers of all lands, unite!’ “

This appeal awakened a response among socialists in many countries, and was widely reproduced in the socialist press. The German Social Democratic Party, at its Wyden Congress (August, 1880), acclaimed the proposal of the Belgian comrades.

It was decided, therefore, to call an international socialist congress in 1881. The first plan was to hold the congress in Zurich, the opening date being fixed for December 2nd, but the Zurich cantonal government prohibited the meeting of the congress in that canton. The date and the place of meeting had therefore to be changed, and the little town of Chur was finally chosen.[372] The Belgian socialists, the French Parti Ouvrier, the German social democracy, and the Swiss social democracy, participated in the preparations for the congress. But whereas at Ghent the anarchists had also participated, they had nothing to do with the Chur Congress, but, as we have seen, called a congress of their own in London.

The agenda of the Chur Congress comprised the following items: (1) The position of the socialist parties in various lands; statistics of workers’ groups, the philosophical, political, and social ideas prevailing in these groups: deductions to be drawn from these statistics and these ideas as regards the future of the socialist movement, and especially in relation to the possibility of a world revolution. (2) Political and industrial position of the proletariat in each country; governmental and other persecutions of the champions of the working class; what socialists ought to do in view of this situation and these persecutions. (3) Is a federation of socialist forces practicable; and, if so, upon what basis? (4) The elaboration of a program of principles, agitation, and propaganda, ignoring details. (5) Is it desirable to found in each country a bureau for giving information and aid to the unemployed, to socialists who have been victimised by capitalist persecution, and so on? (6) If socialists should attain power by one means or another, what new legislation (whether political or economic) should they introduce, and what existing legislation should they repeal, in order to inaugurate socialism? (7) Should a central press organ be established for the discussion of all socialist theories? (8) The drafting of a polyglot manifesto to the workers, a manifesto to make working folk clearly understand their own situation; to explain what the master class wants, and what the socialists want; to show the workers how they can break their chains. (The foregoing agenda was drafted by Anseele for the General Council of the Belgian Socialist Party.)

The Chur Congress sat from October 2 to October 12, 1881. The German Social Democratic Party was represented by Wilhelm Liebknecht, who also held mandates from the Danish Socialist Party. The Socialist Labor Party of North America was represented by McGuire, General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. The Belgian Socialist Party, by Louis Bertrand. The French Parti Ouvrier, the Federations of the Centre and of the East, by J. Joffrin and B. Malon, respectively; the latter also had a mandate from the Federation of the West.[373] The united workers of French-speaking Switzerland, by the veteran J. P. Becker, and by Solari. The social democrats of German-speaking Switzerland by Conzetti, Herter, Lenbert, and Schwartz. Grütli, by Vogelsänger. The German communists of London, by Rachow. Various Polish socialist groups by Varinski and Limonowski.[374] There were also present at the congress Paul Axelrod, as Russian fraternal delegate; and Ferenezi Siula, from Budapest. The Portuguese socialists and the socialists of Buenos Ayres had sent a mandate to Benoît Malon. Italy, Spain, Austria, Britain, and Holland were not represented.

It is difficult to take the congress seriously. No written reports were presented from the countries actually represented, and some of the points on the agenda were never adequately discussed. The frequent changes in the date and the place of meeting had made it impossible for a number of delegates to attend; for instance, delegates expected from France and from Italy were unable to be present. Furthermore, the beginning of October was a most unfortunate time. In Germany, the active socialist workers were all engaged in an electoral campaign. In France, a re-organisation of the Parti Ouvrier was in progress, and preparations were being made for a national socialist congress. As for the other socialist parties in various lands, they were for the most part in the critical preliminary stages of organisation, and were not in a position to pay much attention to the Chur Congress. The French delegates actually proposed to speak of it as a “conference” rather than as a “congress.” Indeed, the proceedings of the Chur Congress speedily assumed the character of work in preparation for a subsequent congress; they did not take the form of debates upon definite practical topics.

The reports show clearly that, if we except the social democracy in Germany and Switzerland, in other countries the workers’ parties were only just beginning to stand on their feet. But there could be no serious question of reviving the International until the period in which the nationalist socialist parties were being formed had come to a close. The socialists of different lands could get into touch with one another, could exchange views and tell one another of their experiences, could give one another moral support; but it was still premature to contemplate the formation of a permanent international organisation. As regards the third item on the agenda, the Chur Congress itself came to the conclusion that a federation of socialist forces was not yet practicable. It also rejected the idea (item four) of elaborating a program of principles, agitation, and propaganda. The creation of a central press organ (item seven) was not considered possible. As regards item six, the French delegates proposed that, in view of the differences in socio-political conditions, this should be left to the respective nations to decide, and the congress agreed. A resolution of sympathy with the Russian socialists was passed unanimously. Finally, the committee which had been appointed to elaborate a manifesto produced the following draft:

“For various reasons, the congress thinks that the time has not yet come for issuing such a manifesto as is contemplated in item eight of the agenda.

“The workers’ parties are in a very critical condition. Some, like those of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Spain, Denmark, and the United States, are in course of reorganisation. Others, like those of Germany, Italy, and Austria, are the object of governmental repression. In Russia, the movement is still in a purely conspiratorial stage, this being due to the situation of our Russian brethren.

“Furthermore, the socialist movement which has succeeded the International is still too recent and too unequally developed to have formulated a detailed program. Finally, the economic and political conditions that obtain in the various countries are not homogeneous enough for it to be practicable, in any scientific fashion, to formulate general rules of behaviour for the totality of the European and American workers’ parties.

“All that social science and the realities of economics have achieved is the indication of certain foundations of joint action, which may be thus enumerated

“Antagonistic interests exist, and, speaking generally, these interests are represented by opposed classes. It is, therefore necessary that all the exploited should form themselves into a class party distinct from the bourgeois parties.

“Seeing, on the other hand, that the day of utopias is over and that it is incumbent upon modern socialists who wish to take science as their guide to study the situation and the historical and political trends of their respective nations in order to decide, in each case, the best type of emancipative activity, the congress affirms that the aims generally accepted by all are:

“1. Complete education for all at the expense of society;

“2. The socialisation of productive forces;

“3. The payment to each worker of an equivalent of what his labour produces, less social charges;

“4. A liberal subsistence, that is to say, a subsistence which shall provide for the intellectual as well as for the material necessaries of life, shall be furnished by society, in accordance with the measure of social possibilities, to all those who work, and to all those who are incapable of work, such as children, invalids, and the superannuated.

“In any case the congress recognises that in the near future the international labour parties may he able to draw up a joint socialist manifesto, and it therefore urges these parties to prepare drafts of such a manifesto to be submitted to the next international congress, to meet in Paris, and the organisation of which is entrusted to the French Parti Ouvrier.”

The participants in the Chur Congress were convinced, and frankly acknowledged, that strong and properly organised national socialist parties were essential preliminaries to the revival of the International upon a stable foundation. They admitted that these preliminary requisites were still lacking. But within a few years of the holding of the Chur Congress the requirements were adequately fulfilled. Socialist parties had been formed and consolidated in Italy, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, France, the United States, etc. At the International Labour Conference held in Paris in the year 1886, it was clearly shown that the growth and consolidation of socialist parties in most capitalist countries was proceeding as if in virtue of an inevitable law of nature. The International Socialist Congress held in Paris in the year 1889 was merely the summation of this historical process. As the outcome of this Congress there came into being a new International which, as Engels had foretold, inscribed on its banner the principles of the International Workingmen’s Association founded in London a quarter of a century before.