Creatively Apply the Lessons of the First International In Commemoration of 150th Anniversary of Foundation

THE International Working Men’s Association (IWA) -- the First International, as it has gone down in history – was a major milestone on the broad road of the world proletariat’s forward march after the Communist League, its first revolutionary platform. The League (1848-52) had boldly upheld and disseminated scientific socialism and proletarian internationalism but did not achieve much in terms of organisational expansion. This aspect was specially taken care of by the IWA (1864-73) which was established “to wield together into one huge army the whole militant working class of Europe and America”, as Engels put it, and in order to achieve that goal it willingly adopted a more accommodating approach towards all existing workers’ (or largely worker-based) organisations irrespective of political leanings.

The mighty wave of revolutions which the Manifesto issued by the Communist League heralded and which swept across continental Europe during 1848-49 was defeated by forces of reaction. But it was the workers who gained in experience, militant resolve and elementary class consciousness. Rather than following the democratic and radical bourgeoisie as they did in 1848, they began to come out largely as a class-for-itself since late ‘50s and early ‘60s. This was manifested in numerous strike struggles, emergence of new organisations including co-operative societies and trade unions, and a palpable growth of international fraternity as evidenced by workers’ rallies held in London in support of the Polish liberation struggle in July 1863. But one old obstacle to broad class unity and wholesome progress of the movement remained: the prevalence of sectarian organisations, owing blind allegiance to individual leaders like Proudhon and Lassalle and calling themselves socialist.

In this backdrop, the IWA “was founded in order to replace the socialist or semi-socialist sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle” – wrote Marx, setting out in concise terms its historical context and political purpose. Elaborating on the dialectical relation between sects and the real movement, he went on:

“The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the real working class movement always stand in inverse ratio to each other. Sects are justified (historically) so long as the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity, all sects are essentially reactionary. Nevertheless, what history exhibits everywhere was repeated in the history of the International. What is antiquated tries to re-establish itself and maintain its position within the newly acquired form.

And the history of the International was a continual struggle of the General Council against the sects and amateur experiments which sought to assert themselves within the International against the real movement of the working class.”[fn] Letter to F. Bolte, November 23, 1871, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, pp 253-55[/fn]

Was this struggle finally crowned with success? Formally maybe no, in essence definitely yes. What we mean to say will be clear by the time we reach the end of the story.

And that’s a story which holds out great lessons for us today. Of course, historical patterns do not repeat themselves. The conditions, opportunities and therefore tasks before revolutionaries have been constantly changing, and 150 years after the foundation of the First International we are for sure living in a very different world. Yet, if you listen deep into the voice of history – the voice of people who once suffered and fought more for their future generations than for themselves, who blazed new trails for us to follow – you will be pleasantly surprised to come across so many lessons so much useful to this day. Many of these we expect our readers to discover in the lines that follow and we shall try to summarise them in the second part of this article.

Dr. Marx in St. Martin’s Hall

The IWA was founded in a meeting held at St. Martin’s Hall, London, on September 28, 1864. “Dr. Marx” (as he was mentioned in the minutes) was just one of the invitees (he was a Londoner at the time) to the meeting organised by others representing emigrant revolutionaries, radical bourgeois democrats and workers’ organisations with reformist/anarchist/mixed leanings. The hall was packed to suffocation. He was elected to its leading body -- the General Council (GC) -- and also the subcommittee for drafting documents, but the organisers assigned the responsibility of drafting the basic documents to a follower of Mazzini (a revolutionary bourgeoisie democrat in Italy) and a disciple of Robert Owen (British utopian socialist). It was only in course of a tough debate on the drafts prepared by these two men that Marx gained the confidence of others, who asked him to “revise” the drafts. What he produced were completely new documents: the “Provisional Rules” (also known as General Rules) and the “Inaugural Address” (see “Marx and Engels, Selected Works”, Vol. II). These were unanimously passed in the GC, although he had only one supporter (not Engels) in that body. “It was very difficult”, he wrote in a letter to Engels, “to frame the thing so that our views should appear in a form acceptable from the present standpoint of the workers’ movement … It will take time before the re-awakened movement allows the old boldness of speech...”[fn] accessed on 15.09.2014. By “old boldness” Marx is referring to the period of the Communist League and the Communist Manifesto[/fn]

The Foundational Documents

The basic programme of working class movement was formulated in brief and broad outlines in the Preamble to the Provisional Rules. It started with the famous words: “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. This was a clear affront to the Lassalean project of cooperative movement with the help of the bourgeois state as a road to prosperity of the working people, and other kindred ideas. The Preamble went on to say that the goal – abolition of all class rule – was to be achieved by political struggle based on broad class unity and proletarian internationalism. Here was “a programme” to quote Engels again, “which would not shut the door on the English trade unions, the French, Belgian, Italian and Spanish Proudhonists and the German Lassalleans.”

Following the Preamble, the Provisional Rules laid down the broad principles of democratic centralism, with greater space for democracy than centralism, at a primary level. This meant a much-needed departure from the patriarchal centralism and unquestionable authority of individual leaders that were prevalent in the sectarian organisations.

The Inaugural Address, apart from summing up the history of working class movement between 1848 and 1864, provided a sort of explanatory note on the programmatic outline embedded in the Provisional Rules. Marx discussed the increasing exploitation and oppression of the working people and declared:

“No improvement of machinery, no appliance of science to production, no contrivances of communication, no new colonies, no immigration, no opening of markets, no free trade, nor all these things put together, will do away with the miseries of the industrious masses;… On the present false base, every fresh development of the productive powers of labour must tends to deepen social contrasts and point social antagonisms.”

The achievements of the cooperative movement, he pointed out, had proved that the workers were quite able to organise production without the capitalists. However, within the framework of capitalist society, cooperative labour could not substantially improve the condition of the working class. It would serve as an instrument of the working people’s emancipation only when it developed to national dimensions and was fostered by national means. That was being prevented by “the Lords of land and the Lords of capital”, who would “always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economic monopolies”. The conclusion naturally and inevitably followed: “To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.”

But how to go about it? Said Marx, “one element of success they possess -- numbers, but numbers weigh only in the balance, if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.” (Emphases ours) Marx could not afford to be more forthright than this, but he did not fail to emphasise both the importance of trade unions (“united by combination”) and political struggles (“struggles for emancipation”); both scientific socialism (“knowledge”) and international solidarity (“bond of brotherhood”).

Mobilising the Ranks of World Proletariat

The International took a series of initiatives to attract and unite the broad masses of workers in industrialised countries. By way of examples, let us see how the work progressed in the two countries that stood at the forefront of international working class movement – with their own shares of political problems, of course.


Trade unions were the only mass organisation of the English proletariat since the disintegration of the National Charter Association, which led the famous Chartist Movement. Marx was well aware that their reformist leaders had actually sold themselves out to the bourgeoisie but he also knew that behind them stood thousands of rank and file members. So he maintained close contacts with them, while continuing to combat their liberal bourgeois views.

With a view to expanding the proportion of lower-level worker leaders as a counterweight to the workers’ aristocracy within the IWA, he got the Council to call upon the British trade unions and workers’ societies to join the IWA. The reformist leaders did not like this, but could not find any pretext for opposing the call, so all the workers’ organisations in London and the suburbs got the right to send one representative each to the Council. These new Council-members, who were directly connected with the mass of workers, generally stood with Marx in struggles against reformist top leadership.

But mobilising the TUs in the International was only the first step. Marx was eager for independent and active participation of British workers in general democratic movement. So when a member of the GC, who was a radical bourgeois in political attitude, proposed the mobilisation of workers in a movement for universal suffrage, Marx readily accepted it and extended all kinds of support. The “Reform League” – a united front of bourgeois and petty bourgeois democrats and workers -- was established in early 1865. It succeeded in educating thousands of workers throughout England on why the right to universal suffrage was vital for the proletariat. Gradually, attempts at combining the activities of the Reform League and the trade unions, and thus advancing the workers’ movement both in its economic and political aspects, began to yield results. Less than a year after founding the League, i.e., on January 15, 1866, Marx wrote in a letter, “We have succeeded in drawing into the movement the one really big workers’ organisation i.e., the English “Trade unions”, which formerly concerned themselves exclusively with wage questions. It was with their help that the English society which we founded for achieving universal suffrage … held a monster meeting a few weeks ago...”[fn] Letter to L Kugelman, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, p 165 [/fn]

After two years, the Reform League took to the path of unprincipled compromises and became inactive. But its main purpose had already been achieved, at least partially: the working class in Britain had broken through the blockade of trade unionist ideology and associated itself with mass political struggles, thus reviving the tradition of the Chartist Movement.


The most influential workers’ organisation in Marx and Engels’ home country was the “General Association of German Workers” (GAGW) founded by Lassalle in 1863. Lassalle held that the working class will have to achieve emancipation by organising producers’ cooperatives with state assistance and by winning universal suffrage. Marx and Engels were well aware that even after Lassalle’s death in August 1864, the “Association” was working in a purely reformist and opportunist way. Yet they decided to refrain from openly criticising Lassalle for the time being because, firstly, “Lassalle –– and this remains his immortal service –– re-awakened the workers’ movement in Germany after its fifteen years of slumber”[fn]Letter to JB Schweitzer, October 13, 1868 [/fn] and secondly, the organization founded by him had a good mass following.

The other influential organisation active in Germany was the “Union of German Workers’ Educational Societies” founded by bourgeois liberals in 1863. These societies were active in most of the towns and cities. Also there were a considerable number of followers of Marx and Engels in the country –– not as a separate group, but in those educational societies and in the branches of GAGW.

Such was the condition of workers’ movement in Germany when the IWA was born. Instead of hastily setting up a branch of the IWA with their followers, Marx and Engels tried to influence and attract the two existing mass organisations. For this purpose, they decided to utilise the Der Social-Demokrat (published by Schweitzer, Lassalle’s successor) by getting the Inaugural Address published in it, for example, and by occasionally contributing other articles.

Marx also got the GC to pass a resolution allowing the workers in Germany to join the International individually, in view of the ban on workers’ organizations against associating with any foreign association. Those who joined under this provision built up secret branches of the IWA in many cities. These branches conducted their activities from behind legal organisations like co-operative societies, workers’ education societies etc. Interestingly, most active in these matters were the advanced workers of the GAGW itself — workers who longed to preserve the traditions of the Communist League and who had started opposing the Lassallean leadership. But simultaneously they continued to work within the GAGW also.

Similarly, in the “Union of German Workers’ Educational Societies” also the revolutionary forces started to get closer as a result of continuous propaganda work on behalf of Marx, Engels and their followers. Prominent among the young workers who stood up against the old leadership with revolutionary zeal was August Bebel. In July 1865 he separately united 29 workers’ education societies the League of German Workers’ Societies. Next month, Liebknecht met him and helped him grasp the Marxist world outlook.

In early September, 1868, the League headed by Bebel met at Nuremberg. Majority of the representatives stood for the International, and a new programme was adopted on that basis. The spokesmen of bourgeois liberalism suffered a crushing defeat. Marx saw to it that the League lost no time in getting itself formally affiliated with the IWA. Its governing body was appointed as the International’s Executive Committee for Germany. Based on this groundwork was started the process of building the proletarian party of Germany. And at last in August 1869 the “Social-Democratic Workers’ Party” was formed in a congress held in Eisenach in which the German branches of the IWA, the rebel branches of GAGW, a number of trade unions and the League led by Bebel participated. The programme adopted in this congress retained some of the Lasallean notions and other petty bourgeois ideas, but basically it upheld the principles and policies of the IWA. Thus for the first time in the world, a mass party of the proletariat was established on a national scale on the basis of proletarian internationalism and a basically Marxist programme.

A Holistic Understanding of Class Struggle

As in our time, so in those days there was no dearth of workers’ struggles. What the movement suffered from was various kinds of one- sidedness (economism for example) and the Interrnational did all it could to overcome this problem, e.g., by mobilising British workers in the movement for universal suffrage, as noted above.

A constant concern of Marx on this score was to develop a correct approach to TU work. In the “Special Report” to the GC (June 1865, see below) he had criticised British TUs for “limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”[fn]Last paragraph of the pamphlet Wages, Price and Profit[/fn] Marx took up the question again in his detailed guideline to the London delegates for the Geneva Congress held in September 1866 (he was not attending that congress because he was unwilling to interrupt the preparation of Capital for press – a work he considered to be “of greater importance to the working class than anything I could personally do at any kind of congresses.”[fn]Letters to Dr. Kugelman by Karl Marx, Moscow-Leningrad, 1934, pp 37-38[/fn] In an item in the guideline titled “Trades’ Unions. Their Past, Present and Future”, he praised the British TUs for the sustained struggles for economic demands but criticised the reformist leaderships for staying away from “general social and political movements”. In future, he wrote, trade unions must “learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation.” (Emphasis in the original). They must mobilise in the struggle ever broader masses of unorganised, unskilled, and the lowest- paid workers, including agrarian labourers, he added. At the same time he warned against the trend, visible among sections of French and German leaders, of underestimating the importance of TU struggles.

But it was far from enough to enlighten the leaders and the advanced cadre who attended Congresses and other forums. Vitally important was to politicise the rank and file workers. For this purpose the International always came out with resolutions on important events in any country, explaining how workers’ class interests were related with such developments. Thus it ardently supported the Polish and Irish liberation movements through propaganda and other means, urging workers of all countries to rally in support of these movements from an independent class position. When Abraham Lincoln, leader of the war on slavery, was re-elected President of USA in late 1864, the IWA sent him an “Address” (drafted by Marx, naturally) the opening sentence of which was: “We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority.” The letter was duly acknowledged. Its closing paragraph read like this:

“The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.”[fn] (1 of 3) [23/08/2000 17:15:35] accessed on 16.09.2014[/fn]

Such occasions helped workers and their leaders learn how to avoid banal generalities and take positions on the basis of concrete analysis of concrete situations. On the other hand, the rich and varied experience of the International helped Marx to define and explain the links between economic and political struggles; and also to elucidate the dialectical connections between these movements and nature/forms of workers’ organisations. (See box).

Diamond in the Ring

“Without the International Moore’s (Marx’s family nickname) life would have been a diamond ring without the diamond”, said his closest comrade-in-arms. Without Marx’s leadership, we might as well say, the First International would have been a ship without a captain and a compass, doomed to go astray and capsize in uncharted seas.

Among the outstanding qualities which lay behind Marx’s success as the natural leader or “moving spirit” (as Lenin commented) of the International[fn] He was neither the President nor the Honorary General Secretary of the General Council, but only one of the Corresponding Secretaries (for Germany to begin with, later also for Russia)[/fn], at least three – apart from his tireless toil – merit special attention. First, of course, his profound understanding of the general laws of social development, complemented by his thorough knowledge of the concrete forms and specific features of workers’ struggle in all countries represented on the IWA. This made his proposals and guidelines at crucial junctures and on even the most intricate issues absolutely clear and convincing.

Second, his mastery over the dialectic of unity and struggle – the dialectic of flexibility and firmness. Rocklike determination in struggle on questions of basic principles and creative flexibility for forging broad unity with organisations having good mass base, albeit with reformist/opportunist/careerist leadership – the magic combination of these two leadership qualities enabled Marx to steer the organisation forward through fair weather and foul.

Third, his constant care for raising the theoretical level of the proletarian ranks as well as the leaders so that they can shed old baggage and begin to think correctly. In a couple of GC meetings in June 1865 he actually held study classes in the name of presenting a “Special Report” on economic questions. The main section of the report, widely known since its first publication in 1898 under the title Wages, Price and Profit, was essentially a preview and popular exposition of the gist of Volume One of Capital. The discussion was absolutely necessary for repudiating the common sense perceptions and erroneous theories prevalent among a good many members. (There was a view, for example, that struggle for wage increase was ultimately harmful, because every raise in wages is bound to result in a rise in prices of commodities!) Now equipped with a correct understanding on how the capitalist economy actually works, the leading body found itself better positioned to take correct political decisions.

Unlike Proudhon, Lassalle, Bakunin et al, who insisted on absolute submission to the personal of authority of the single leader, Marx saw himself only as a facilitator, a vehicle of proletarian class leadership. To place the working class movement firmly on an independent proletarian stand distinct from all bourgeois and petty bourgeois doctrines and political currents — such was the task he and his close comrades[fn] Physically away from London (the seat of the GC) though he was, Engels was very much active in its business through correspondence. Quite often he shared Marx’s heavy burden in this way and also took over some of the responsibility of his friend by establishing contacts with workers’ leaders in Germany. In September 1870 he settled in London, unanimously co-opted to the GC and took over a larger part of Marx’s tasks. The Marxist core of the International was thus immensely strengthened.[/fn] in the IWA assigned themselves. And they lived up to it splendidly. In place of sectarian, authoritarian petty bourgeois leaderships thus began to develop the embryo of a broader theory and practice of proletarian class leadership that would operate through the Party, but must not degenerate into the Party’s formal organisational command. And this remains one of the most important (and most neglected) lessons to be drawn from the experience of the International.

Given this attitude, Marx was aggressively opposed to accepting any special credit for himself. Once his good old friend Wilhelm Liebknecht sent a report on the working class movement in Germany to a conference of the International (London, 1865). But Marx did not present it to the conference. And why? Because, as he wrote back to Liebknecht, “I was too personally introduced in it.”

Was he going too far? He did not think so. He had declared himself “a servant of the working class”, and he meant it. The last and most productive years of the IWA, with the Paris Commune as its highest historic achievement, would prove this even more brilliantly.

(To be concluded)

The political movement of the working class has as its ultimate object, of course, the conquest of political power for this class, and this naturally requires a previous organisation of the working class developed up to a certain point and arising precisely from its economic struggles.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and tries to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc., is a pure economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law, is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a movement of the class, with the object of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general, socially coercive force. While these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are in turn equally a means of developing this organisation.

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against this power and by a hostile attitude toward the policies of the ruling classes. Otherwise it remains a plaything in their hands…”

- Karl Marx [fn]Letter to F. Bolte, November 23, 1871, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, pp 253-55[/fn]


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