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Labour Review, February–March 1960

Henry Collins

First International

From Labour Review, Volume 3 No .4, February–August–September 1958, p.110.
Transcribed & marked up by Ted Crawford & D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2009.

The First International. Minutes of the Hague Congress of 1872 with related documents. Edited and translated by Hans Gerth (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, $6)

By 1872 the First International was nearing the end of its effective life. Founded in 1864 and guided, from its inception, by Marx, the International had scored spectacular successes in co-ordinating international trade union support for strikes. It had a decisive influence on the early socialist parties in France, Germany, Belgium and other European countries and had ramifications, though slight ones, in Algiers and India. The debate conducted by the General Council on the relation between wages and the cost of living, the discussions at conferences and congresses of the International on the relation between socialism and national liberation movements and on the effects of machinery on the working class, were of decisive importance in the development of socialist thought. By 1872, however, the followers of Bakunin had secured control of a number of national sections, chiefly in the Latin countries, while a strong group within the English section was acting in alliance with them. It seemed only too likely that Marx would lose control of the International and that Bakunin would set his stamp on the Labour movement at a formative stage in its development. To avoid this, Marx and Engels secretly prepared a coup for the Hague Congress, at which the anarchists were still in a minority, and a decision was taken to remove the General Council to New York, where Marx’s followers, headed by Sorge, could be relied on to keep it out of Bakunin’s control. Though the decision killed the First International, it probably ensured that the Second, founded in 1889, was, nominally at least, Marxist in outlook.

The minutes of the decisive Hague Congress, written by Sorge, are here published for the first time, together with Sorge’s report to the North American Federation of the International, and Maltman Barry’s reports in the Standard , published as a pamphlet in 1873. Though the minutes add nothing of substance to Barry’s report, which was already known, they at least confirm its accuracy, and in publishing them Hans Gerth has performed a service to Labour history.

It is unfortunate, however, that the editor does not seem to have looked at many of the English or even American sources of the history of the International. As a result there are some curious errors in biographical glossary, which detract from its value. George Odger was at no time ‘general secretary’ of the International (p.304). Maltman Barry was not ‘the one English delegate to vote with Marx and Engels for transferring the seat of the International to New York’ (p.298), since the report of Barry shows, five pages earlier, that George Sexton also voted for the change. There was no ‘London Congress of the International in 1865’ (p.306), but a conference with no policy-making powers, a point of substance made by Marx in his subsequent controversy with Howell. Nor was Marx’s famous defence of the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France , published ‘without prior endorsement of the General Council’ (p.302), as an examination of the General Council’s minutes shows. Though the original of the minutes, in Amsterdam, may not have been available to the editor, they have been published in the valuable Russian book, The First International in the Days of the Paris Commune .

These errors are the editor's own. He repeats a common fallacy when he writes that British trade unionists ‘were in a hurry to withdraw from the International’ after Marx’s defence of the Commune appeared (Introduction, p. xii). Two trade unionists, Odger and Lucraft, resigned for special reasons—Odger because of his association with Bradlaugh’s Republican campaign, Lucraft because of his recent election to the London School Board. Not a single trade union disaffiliated from the International on account of the Commune, and the powerful Amalgamated Society of Engineers had no qualms about using the machinery of the International, three months after the fall of the Commune, in support of the nine-hour strike on the north-east coast.

Because of the two documents published for the first time the book is valuable for specialists. The notes and comments, however, should be treated with reserve.


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