The International Workingmen's Association, 1872

The Hague, 19th century

The Setting for the Fifth Congress of the International Workingmen's Association

A narrative from Karl Marx, 1936, by Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen

Everyone who attended it knew that the Hague congress would be the last of the united International.

When it met at the Hague on 2 September, the town was swarming with journalists and secret agents. No assembly of the International had roused the world's attention like this one. It was the first after the Commune -- a "declaration of war of chaos on order". An attempt had been made to persuade the Dutch Government to forbid the congress. Jules Simon bad travelled from Paris to the Hague to present his Government's request to this effect, but he had as little success as others who wanted the same. Next it had been announced that the congress would resolve on acts of terrorism, and that it was a rendezvous of regicides. But the Dutch Government refused to be intimidated. Next an attempt had been made to incite the population against the congress. The Haager Dag blaad, for instance. warned the citizens of the Hague not to allow their wives and daughters to go out alone during the sessions of the congress, and called on all the jewellers to draw their shutters. The police, however, took no action and seemed actually to regard the congress with benevolence. A Berlin secret police agent reluctantly reported that up to 5 September all the meetings were strictly private, and

not only does the Dutch police keep no watch whatever on them but protects the meeting-place in the Lombardstrasse so scrupulously that the public is not even allowed a look into the ground floor where the meetings are held, or even so much as make an attempt to overhear through the open window a single word of what is taking place within.

As long as the sessions remained secret there was nothing for the journalists to do but wander round the meeting-hall and describe their "impressions". A few of them faked interviews with Marx. Others described the delegates, and Marx in particular. The correspondent of the Indépendence belge wrote that the impression that Marx made on him was that of a "gentleman farmer", which was friendly at any rate.

The congress was not very numerously attended. No more than sixty-five delegates were present. Congresses of the Inter. national had been better attended in the past, and among the delegates were many who were not known from before. But it was the first International congress attended by Marx and Engels. The first and private sessions were devoted to examination of the delegates' mandates, and there was bitter strife about each one, for each one was important. At previous congresses this part of the proceedings had been regarded as but a superfluous formality. It soon became clear that there was a majority for Marx, with forty votes to twenty-five. There were two opposing factions, each united as far as internal questions affecting the International were concerned, but far from united politically. The opposition was held together by antagonism to Marx. It consisted of all the Belgian, all the Dutch, all the Jurassian and nearly all the English and Spanish delegates. The majority was more united, consisting of the Germans, the German-Swiss, the Hungarians, the Bohemians, the German émigrés from America, but it included many French émigrés and delegates of illegal sections in France too. The Blanquists were particularly well represented among the French émigrés.

This grouping by no means bore out the theory of the contrast between the state-worshipping Germanic races who were loyal to Marx and the freedom-loving, anti-authoritarian Latins. Guillaume, leader of the Jurassian section, was extremely astonished when Eccarius told him "que le torchon brûlait au Conseil général". He had believed that the English delegates, who were trade unionists, were devoted followers of Marx. He now found out that they were "en guerre ouverte avec ceux qui formaient Ia majorité". He was just as surprised when he found there was Dutch opposition to the General Council. Attempts to unite the opposition were made before the opening of the congress, but it was only towards its close that the fundamental political differences between the various groups made it possible to come to a common understanding.

Violent disputes took place during the examination of the mandates. The English delegates were unwilling to admit their fellow countryman, Maltman Barry, who was provided with a mandate from an American section, on the ground that he was not a known trade union leader. At that Marx sprang indignantly to his feet. It was an honour to Citizen Barry that that was so, he exclaimed, because almost all the English trade union leaders were sold to Gladstone or some other bourgeois politician. That remark was held against Marx for a long time. The mandates of the delegates of the German sections were also disputed. During their trial for high treason at Leipzig in 1872 Bebel and Liebknecht had declared the solidarity of their party with the International, though the party did not belong to the International and its local groups were not sections of the International. This was formally correct. To prevent their party from being banned Bebel and Liebknecht could not have done otherwise. The Bakuninists, relying on this statement, demanded that the German delegates" mandate should not be recognized. Now the sections the German delegates represented were not very big and had only been formed specially for the congress, but behind many a Bakuninist mandate there was not exactly a mass organization either. The German mandate was accepted. Fully three days were occupied with these and similar matters. The real congress did not begin until 5 September. It met in a working-class quarter of the town. A French newspaper remarked sarcastically that next to the congress hall was a prison, "then laundries, small workshops, many pothouses, tap-rooms, here called taperij, and clandestine establishments such as are used, as one would say in congress style, by the Dutch proletariat". The sessions took place in the evening, in order to enable workers to attend. "The workers certainly did not fail to put in an appearance. Never have I seen a crowd so packed, so serious, so anxious to see and hear." The events of the evening of 5 September were described by Le Français as follows:

At last we have had a real session of the International congress, with a crowd ten times greater than the hall could accommodate, with applause and interruptions and pushing and jostling and tumultuous cries, and personal attacks and extremely radical but nevertheless extremely conflicting declarations of opinion, with recriminations, denunciations, protests, calls to order, and finally a closure of the session, if not of the discussion, which at past ten o'clock, in a tropical heat and amid inexpressible confusion, imposed itself by the force of things.

The first question discussed was that of the extension of the General Council's powers in accordance with the resolution passed at the London conference. The opposition not only wanted no extension of the General Council's powers, but objected to the powers the General Council already possessed. They wanted to reduce it to a statistical office, or even better, to a mere letterbox, a correspondence office. These advocates of autonomy were opposed by Sorge, who had come from New York. He said that the International not only needed a head, but one with plenty of brains. Guillaume, who describes the scene, says that at this people looked at Marx and laughed. The congress gave the General Council its extended powers. The resolution stated that it was the duty of the General Council to carry out the decisions of the International congress and to see that the principles and general intentions of the statutes were observed in every country, and that it had the power to suspend branches, sections, committees and federations until the next congress. Thirty-six delegates voted for this resolution, with fifteen against and six abstentions.

When the ballot was over Engels rose and proposed in his own and Marx's name that the headquarters of the General Council be transferred from London to New York. This caused an indescribable sensation. A few weeks previously, when somebody had suggested removing the headquarters of the International from London, Marx had opposed it strenuously, and now here he was proposing it himself. Vaillant, speaking for the Blanquists, made a passionate protest. So far as he was concerned, transferring the General Council to New York was equivalent to transferring into the moon. The Blanquists could not possibly have any influence on the General Council unless it remained where it was, i.e. in his place of exile, London. But Marx had calculated rightly. If the Blanquists, who otherwise supported him, opposed him in this, there were plenty of opposition delegates to support him. A General Council in America would obviously mean a General Council without Marx. And so they voted for the resolution. It was carried by twenty-six votes to twenty-three.

Then the political debate began. The General Council proposed that the following resolution of the London conference be incorporated in the statutes.

In its struggle against the collective power of the possessing classes, the proletariat can only act as a class if it constitutes its own distinct political party, opposed to all the old parties formed by the possessing classes. The forming of a political party by the proletariat is indispensable in order to assure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate object, the abolition of all classes. The coalition of working-class forces, already obtained in economic struggles, must also serve as a lever in the hands of that class in its struggle against the political power of its exploiters. The lords of the earth and the lords of capital always use their political privileges to defend and perpetuate their economic monopolies and to enslave Labour, and therefore the conquest of political power is the great duty of the proletariat.

Every point of view was represented in the discussion, from that of the extremists opposed to political intervention of any kind on the one hand to that of the Blanquists, who had no patience with the economic struggle, on the other. The Blanquists accepted the principle of the strike as a means of political action, but their real interest remained the barricade. They wanted to put "the militant organization of the revolutionary forces of the proletariat and the proletarian struggle" on the programme of the next congress. Guillaume, as spokesman of the "anti-authoritarians", stated that the majority wanted the seizure of political power and the minority wanted its annihilation. The General Council resolution was carried by twenty-nine votes to five, with eight abstentions. By this time many delegates had left, being unable to remain at the Hague any longer, and others no longer took part in the voting, having lost interest. The Blanquists attacked the General Council for having caused the revolution to take flight across the ocean and left the congress. The Bakuninists, however, decided after reflection that the situation was far better than it had seemed at first. "The authority of the General Council, voted for in principle by the majority, is in fact abolished by the choice of New York", Guillaume wrote in triumph.

On the last day the congress discussed the desirability of expelling members of the Bakuninist Alliance from the International. A special committee was appointed to examine the evidence submitted to it by the General Council. Guillaume was invited to appear before it but refused, giving the same explanation as he had given at the congress in Latin Switzerland in April 1870. "Every member of the International has the full and complete right to join any secret society, even the Freemasons. Any inquiry into a secret society would simply be equivalent to a denunciation to the police," he maintained. The utmost to which he would consent was to a "private conversation" with members of the committee. Clever as he was, he could not answer the weighty evidence against him. Nechaiev's letter to Liubavin made a great impression. Bakunin and Guillaume were expelled from the International.

The congress ended on 7 September. On 8 September a meeting, organized by the local section, took place at Amsterdam. Among the speakers were Marx, Engels, Lafargue, Sorge, Becker and others. Marx's speech was reported in La Liberté, the Brussels organ of the International, and in the Allgemeen Handelsblad of Amsterdam, and was by far the most important made by him at the time of the congress. In it he summed up its results.

He proclaimed the necessity of the working classes fighting the old, decaying society in the political field and in the social field alike. The worker must one day seize political supremacy in order to establish the new organization of labour. He must overthrow the old politics sustaining the old institutions.

The International had proclaimed the necessity of the political struggle and repudiated pseudo-revolutionary abstention from politics. But he indicated the future path in general outline only. No prescription for the seizure of political power was valid for all countries and all times, as the Blanquists, and others too, pretended.

But we have never said that the means to arrive at these ends were identical. We know the allowance that must be made for the institutions, manners and traditions of different countries. We do not deny that there exist countries like America, England, and, if I knew your institutions better, I would add Holland, where the workers may be able to attain their ends by peaceful means. If that is true we must also recognize that inmost of the countries of the Continent force must be the lever to which it will be necessary to resort for a time in order to attain the dominion of labour.

Marx ended his speech with a defence of the decision to transfer the General Council to America. America was the land of the workers, to which hundreds of thousands emigrated every year, whether banished or driven by want, and in America a new and fruitful field was opening for the International As far as he himself was concerned, he was retiring from the General Council, but he denied the rumours that he was retiring from the International. On the contrary, freed from the burden of administrative work, he would devote himself with redoubled energy to the task to which he had devoted twenty-five years of his life and would continue with until his last breath, namely his work for the liberation of the proletariat.

Marx's motives for transferring the General Council to New York have been much discussed. At the congress he had done all in his power to gain the victory, and he had gained it, though in some things his victory was more apparent than real. He had conducted a ruthless struggle against the Bakuninists and seemed determined to conduct it to the very end, i.e. the complete extermination of anarchism. And then all of a sudden he caused the General Council to be banished from Europe. He must obviously have realized that his influence on the life of the International would be very seriously impaired. It has been suggested that Marx had grown weary of the strain and the petty cares that his work on the General Council involved, of the ever-increasing burden of correspondence that he had to conduct, the exhausting and fruitless debates with the English members, the meetings and conferences and visits, and the whole troublesome, time-robbing labour that devolved mainly upon his shoulders. It has been suggested that he wished to be free of all this and to return to his most important task, the completion of Das Kapital. Certainly Marx often complained of how little time his work on the General Council left him for his scientific work. But he always laid everything else aside when the International demanded it. "He was above all a revolutionary." One recalls those words of Engels. Besides, after the Hague congress, Marx could have done much more scientific work without sacrificing any of his political work whatever, for Engels now lived in London and could have represented him on the General Council and carried out his wishes. But in spite of this he insisted on the General Council moving away from London.

Marx had other reasons. For the General Council to have remained in London would have spelled the ruin of the International. Bakunin had been expelled, but the spirit of Bakunin lived on. Nearly all the sections in Southern Europe, in Italy and Spain, were "anti-authoritarian". The Commune inspired and inflamed them, and their watchword was action, action all the time. They wanted all or nothing, and their only battle-cry was the social revolution. Marx and Engels saw the danger. "Spain is so backward industrially that there can be no talk of an immediate, complete emancipation of the working class. Spain must pass through various stages of development before it comes to that, and a whole series of obstacles must be cleared out of the way." The Bakuninists violently attacked the young Spanish republic, which was threatened on all sides as it was. Marx and Engels regarded the blind, impetuous radicalism of the Bakuninists as fatal. "The republic offered the opportunity of compressing those preliminary stages into the shortest possible time, and of rapidly removing those obstacles." But the Bakuninists did not listen and did not look. Anything but attack and again attack and barricades was "politics", "idolizing the state", cowardly and counter-revolutionary. It was necessary for the International to part from them. "If we had been conciliatory at the Hague", Engels wrote to Bebel at the end of June 1873, "if we had hushed up the split, what would the consequences have been? The sectarians, namely the Bakuninists, would have had a whole year's time to commit far greater stupidities and infamies in the International's name."

The Hague congress had also shown that all the Proudhonist groups, the Dutch, the Belgians and others as well, would have been ready to follow the Bakuninists as soon as they left or were expelled from the International, and all that would have remained would have been the group that supported Marx during the congress. It would very soon have melted away. The German party was bound to avoid anything that might imperil its legal status, particularly after the outcome of the Leipzig high treason trial. Marx approved of their policy in this. It would be impossible for them to share in the life of the International, at least for a long time to come. Of Marx's majority at the congress that only left the Blanquists.

Marx esteemed Blanqui very highly and had a high opinion of the Blanquists' courage, and he had not a few personal friends among them. But a whole world divided him from them politically. He had had several serious disputes with them even before the congress. At the congress they had followed him as long as it was a question of fighting against the "anti-politicians", the "destroyers of the state". The Blanquists stoutly asserted the omnipotence of the state. It must not be destroyed but seized, but there was only one way of seizing it, and that was the barricade -- whether in Spain or France, England or Germany made no difference. In their eyes the single duty of the International was to organize armed risings.

We shall return to Marx's Amsterdam speech in another connection. It alone gives the explanation of the decision to transfer the General Council to New York. Had it remained in London, Marx would only have been able to maintain his ground with the aid of the Blanquists. The International would have become Blanquist, and its programme would have shrunk to the single word: barricade.

The congress had decided to transfer the General Council to New York for the year 1872-3. Marx was convinced that developments in Europe would be so rapid and so favourable that after a year the General Council would be able to return from exile. This was a mistake. Marx correctly estimated the direction the workers' movement was taking; as happened more than once, he was mistaken about its tempo. He soon recognized his error. A year after the Hague congress he gave up the International for lost. Its history in America is that of its gradual death. Its slow decline was occasionally interrupted by petty crises, by splits and splits again, and it is impossible to establish for certain even the date when it finally expired. When Engels rose at the Hague congress and proposed that the General Council be transferred to America, the International ceased to exist.