Earlier this month Marxmail subscriber Joonas Laine asked about books that cover the history of the first International, known rather unfortunately as the International Workingman’s Association. I should add that this was more than just a sexist oversight. One of the standard histories of the first international written by G.M. Stekloff that can be read online at the Marxist Internet Archives describes the exclusion of women from the Paris branch of the IWA by its Proudhonist majority:
Regarding this matter, the French … had decided by a large majority: ‘Woman’s place is the home, not the forum; nature has made her nurse and housewife, do not let us withdraw her from these social functions and from her true sphere in life; for the man, work, and study of the problems of society for the woman, the caring for children and the beautifying of the worker’s home.’ Consequently, to the great scandal of the advocates of the so-called emancipation of woman, they had decided against the admission of women to the International.
These were the words of E.E. Fribourg, a Proudhonist who had written his own history in 1871, just around the time that the IWA was collapsing.
I read Stekloff’s book as well as the first chapter of Raymond Williams Postgate’s history as background for a series of posts on the four attempts to build socialist internationals. Ever since Hugo Chavez issued a call for a Fifth International, I had promised myself to carve out some time to take up this question. Most people who are veterans of the Trotskyist movement were indoctrinated to believe something like this. The internationals that preceded our own—the fourth—failed for one reason or the other. I was more familiar with the second and the third, which succumbed to the kinds of social democratic and Stalinist sins that our movement devoted so much energy to exposing. I knew much less about the first international, which usually received a brief review in a new member’s class or an educational. Of course, our own Fourth International was destined to lead the workers to power all over the world, just as long as they didn’t get misled by the bevy of Fourth Internationals that were pretenders to the throne of Leon Trotsky.
I looked forward to reading about the IWA for several reasons. I am always looking for ways to educate myself about our movement, especially since it helps to keep my brain cells exercised. I also had a hunch that during the lifetime of the IWA, there would be the same sorts of problems we face today. In both periods Marxism was a minority current on the left. If we are trying to piece together a movement out of the rubble of the collapse of the USSR, what better period to study than when socialism was in its infancy?
To start with, it is important to realize that the IWA was not initiated by Karl Marx. As it turns out the British trade union movement played a key role in getting it off the ground and, as might be expected, had very little interest in revolutionary socialism. Indeed, one of their primary motivations was to find a way of preventing foreign workers being used as scabs in British strikes. Stekloff writes:
Simultaneously with the growth of interest in the political struggle, there was a revival of internationalist leanings among the British workers. Here and there, the direct economic interests of the workers exercised an influence. At this date, the standard of life of the British workers was higher than that of the workers in other lands, and consequently the strike movement in Britain was hindered by the competition of the Continental workers. When there was a strike in Britain, the employers would threaten to import foreign workers who would accept worse conditions – and did actually import strike-breakers from Belgium and elsewhere. Naturally, therefore, the movement could not be confined within national limits.
Accepting at face value that British trade unionists were only opposed to scabs and not foreign workers “stealing jobs”, it is necessary to note that the American trade union movement did exhibit naked racism in this period, all within the framework of the IWA.
Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International” explores the factional divisions between Victoria Woodhull and Fredrick Sorge in the American section of the IWA. Woodhull was considered flaky by some dogmatic Marxists since she dabbled in spiritualism and was an early feminist of the kind derided by the Proudhomists. Sorge, on the other hand, had the full support of Karl Marx on most questions but his attitude toward Chinese immigration was hardly calculated to sit well with our movement today, regardless of Marx’s feelings. Messer-Kruse explains:
At their first annual congress after purging the Yankees [Woodhull] from their midst, Sorge’s Tenth Ward Hotel faction devoted much of its attention to the issue the Chinese. In honor to their West Coast comrades, the convention chose Robert Blissert. the proxy delegate of a San Francisco section, president of the convention. Beneath their red banner inscribed with the words “Workingmen of all Countries Unite,” the delegate representing San Francisco’s Internationalists read his report:
“The white workingmen see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.”
California’s Internationalists appealed to their Eastern comrades to do all they could to publicize the plight of the Western white worker and the grave threat posed to all white workers by the continued immigration of the Chinese. Their communication ended on a murderous note. “If Chinese emigration is not stopped,” the message declared (according to one observer present at the meeting), “blood will yet flow in the streets of San Francisco on their account.” The convention voted unanimously to “use [all] their endeavors to give all the publicity possible to the document.”
There were problems with the French section of the IWA but of an entirely different sort. There the followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon enjoyed hegemony. While it would be a mistake to fall into the trap of economic determinism, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Proudhon’s philosophy of “mutualism” had a fertile soil in France since industry was not as developed as it was in Britain. If Britain’s trade union was governed by bread-and-butter issues, French radicals of the 1860s tended to have illusions that change could come about short of a proletarian revolution. Proudhon’s main emphasis was not on the class struggle, but allowing workers to have a fair share in the capitalist economy through co-operatives, the easy advancement of credit and other such reforms. Anybody who has seen Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story” can easily see how seductive these ideas are in a period when the working class was not a fully developed social and economic force.
Chapter five of Stekloff’s history hones in on Proudhon’s philosophy which can be described as a form of anarchism, although distinctly at odds with Bakunin’s anarchism, another current that was also well represented in a highly heterogeneous international.
Proudhonism was organised as a system in the period of extreme reaction which supervened in France upon the suppression of the proletarian rising in June 1848. On the one hand, it was tinged with political indifferentism, which was a reflection of the political indifferentism of the masses during the Second Empire; this aroused sharp criticism on the part of the Blanquists, who declared that the International (during the early days the French members of the organisation were mainly Proudhonists) was in the service of the Bonapartist police. Or, the other hand, Proudhonism was characterised by a narrow doctrinairism. In a society based upon the dominion of large-scale capital and upon the centralisation of economic life, the Proudhonists hoped to solve the social problem by economic measures which should not transcend the limits of petty production and exchange. The difficulties arising out of the exploitation of wage labour by large-scale machine industry, in a society where banking capital had become highly concentrated, were to be overcome – so thought the Proudhonists – by the organisation of people’s banks, with free credit, and by the “equitable” (non-monetary) exchange of products among isolated producers, who were to exchange these goods for their actual (“constituted”) value.
Put in its most simple terms, Proudhonism was a system that prioritized the implementation of economic “alternatives” to capitalism to political assaults on the system. It was akin to the utopian socialist experiments of the time that took root in Britain and the United States. Utopian thought obviously continues to this day as demonstrated by the fascination with the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, which have now grown into a powerful multinational company. As was the case with the Proudhonists, the Mondragon co-op has almost no interest in strikes or political action. If you are expecting the Mondragon management to be on the front lines against the “war on terror”, immigrant rights or gay liberation, you will likely be disappointed. This is not to say that co-op’s are not of benefit to some workers or that Proudhonism was not a genuine movement of the left. It is only a problem when such politically confused initiatives represent themselves as precursors to socialism.
Turning now to the other anarchist party represented in the IWA, we find ourselves communing with the ancestors of the Black Block rather than Mondragon. As master of the “propaganda of the deed”, Mikhail Bakunin—like Proudhon—was undoubtedly opposed to the capitalist system. But he had little interest in co-ops. His main interest was in insurrectionist activity by enlightened intellectuals over and above the heads of the proletariat.
While Bakunin saw the IWA as an organization to spread his influence, his main identification was with something called the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries founded in 1868 that he proposed as a kind of international within the First International, which the IWA understandably rejected. That, of course, did not prevent Bakunin from operating as a secret faction within the IWA. As a past master of intrigue, he probably considered his Marxist comrades with as much contempt as the bourgeoisie since both groups obviously adhered to statism.
Marx and Bakunin both emerge out of the radical wing of the Hegelian School of philosophy but by the early 1840s, they both struggled to transcend this framework. At the outset this was manifested by a tendency to see the struggle for a classless society in moral or philosophical terms. They hoped to lead European society to a better future through a kind of prophetic denunciation of contemporary ills. Proudhon’s notion that “property is theft” epitomizes this approach.
Unlike his anarchist comrades, Marx eventually came to the conclusion that a critique of capitalism had to be rooted in political economy rather than ethics. Written in 1846-47, “The Poverty of Philosophy” is not only an answer to Proudhon’s “Property is Theft,” it also contains some of the basic economic insights that would be more fully developed in Capital.
Besides the philosophical differences, you also have a basic disagreement over what Marxists call “agency,” a term designating the social class capable of transforming society through revolutionary action. Despite the fact that the industrial proletariat had not achieved the sort of numerical strength and social power that it would later in the century, Marx staked everything on this emerging class. The reasons for this are developed extensively throughout his writings, but suffice it to say at this point that it is related to his analysis of the capitalist economy. Since the capitalist system can only survive through competition and revolutionizing the means of production, it would of necessity introduce machinery and–hence–a proletariat. In struggles over wages and working conditions–as well as a host of ancillary issues–the two classes will confront each other in revolutionary battles for power.
Although Bakunin was no friend of the bourgeoisie, he never seemed to be able to make up his mind on the ‘agency’ question. Addressing Marx’s belief that the proletariat be “raised to the level of a ruling class,” Bakunin pointed out that some other class, like the peasant rabble or lumpen-proletariat might be the most willing to rise up against the capitalist system. Whether they, or the philosopher-kings leading them, had a grasp of the political tasks leading up to the final insurrection could hardly matter less.
Despite the clashes in the IWA over such basic questions, it continued to grow as workers became radicalized in struggle. While the Paris Commune was not directly led by IWA members, there is little doubt that the bourgeoisie saw it as the most consistent defender of the first proletarian revolution and a future organizer of such challenges to capitalist rule.
Torn apart by internal rifts and bourgeois repression, the IWA went into a crisis after 1871. The meeting at The Hague in the summer of 1872 would be its last. The IWA decided to expel Bakunin who was charged with mishandling funds. 300 pounds had been advanced to Bakaunin to translate Capital into Russian but he failed to follow through. He was also charged with organizing a secret faction. Additionally, Marx and Engels decided to withdraw from the leadership of the IWA in order to focus on completing Capital and other major theoretical works.
The headquarters of the IWA was transferred to the United States where it sputtered along for a few years until its final convention in July 1876. The American branch was led by Daniel DeLeon, a Jew born in Curacao in 1852 who would move to the United States as a youth and graduate from Columbia University. The American branch of the IWA would eventually become known as the Socialist Labor Party. Unlike the IWA, the SLP continued to exist right until today.
The IWA was a workers international that probably was destined to have a short life, given the social and political contradictions of the movement in its earliest phases. When it finally collapsed, Marx and Engels had already begun to consider how the next phase of the movement would take shape. Marx did not live long enough to see that development—the second international—but clearly his ideas were at its core, as opposed to the inchoate first international.
In September 27, 1873, Marx wrote to Sorge giving his assessment of where the IWA stood:
According to my reading of the European situation, it will be a very good thing that the formal organisation of the International shall, for the time being, be allowed to retire into the background – though it may be just as well that we should keep our hands upon the nucleus in New York, lest idiots like Perret or adventurers like Cluseret might get hold of it and compromise the affair. The course of events and the inevitable development and interlacement of things will spontaneously ensure the uprising of the International in an improved form. For the nonce, however, it will suffice that we avoid allowing ourselves to get quite out of touch with the really efficient workers in the movement in various lands.
One year later, it was Engels’s turn to write to Sorge about the end of the IWA. He was reflective about the organization’s internal contradictions:
‘Tis just as well. The organisation belonged to the epoch of the Second Empire, when the labour movement was again beginning to become active, but when the oppressions that prevailed throughout Europe made unity and abstention from internal disputes absolutely essential. It was time when the joint cosmopolitan interests of the proletariat could come to the front. Germany, Spain, Italy, and Denmark had recently entered the movement, or were just entering it. In 1864, throughout Europe (among the masses at any rate), there was still very little understanding of the theory underlying the movement. German communism had not yet found expression in a workers’ party, and Proudhonism was too weak to impose its whimsies; Bakunin’s new-fangled idea had not yet found its way into his own head. Even the British trade-union leaders felt able to participate is the movement upon the basis of the program formulated in the Preamble to the Provisional Rules of the Association. It was inevitable that the first great success should break up this simple harmony of all the factions. The success was the Commune, which, as far as its intellectual inspiration was concerned, was unmistakably the child of the International, although the International had not stirred a finger to bring it into being – for the International is with good reason made responsible for its creation. But when, thanks to the Commune, the International became a moral force in Europe, the quarrel promptly broke out. The members of each faction wanted to exploit the success on their own account. The break-up of the organisation was inevitable, and speedily ensued. Jealousy of the rising power of those who were ready to continue working along the lines laid down in the old comprehensive program, jealousy of the German communists, drove the Belgian Proudhonists into the arms of the Bakuninist adventurers. The Hague Congress was, in fact, the end of the International, and for both parties in the International. There was only one country in which something might still be done in the name of the International, and it was a happy instinct which led the congress to decide upon the removal of the General Council to the United States. But now, even there, its prestige has waned, and any further attempts to galvanise the corpse to life would be a foolish waste of energy.
The one thing that comes through loud and clear from both Marx and Engels’s letters is an utter lack of sentimentality when it comes to the question of organization. Rather than seeing the IWA as a movement in permanence, they viewed it as an episode in the history of the revolutionary movement that was valid for a particular time and place. As we shall see, this insight would be lost on future leaders of workers’ internationals who tended to invest in them universality and permanence they ill deserved.