Marx and the Politics of the First International

by George C. Comninel

The founding of the First International

In 1859, Karl Marx published A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in Berlin.1 This constituted only the first part of the first book of the six books he planned on the subject, and included only a small part of the material already written.2 In the following year he was distracted by a variety of issues and problems, including lawsuits and polemics following libellous charges made by Karl Vogt (whom he already knew to be, as was subsequently proved, a paid agent of Louis Bonaparte3). When he returned to seriously pursue his critique of political economy in mid-1861, he soon transcended the project of completing the second part of the book, as such. Over the next two years he produced an enormous manuscript – 1472 large pages in 23 notebooks – that comprised the first drafts of what would become the three volumes of Capital plus the further three volumes of Theories of Surplus Value.4

Whereas Marx wrote the first (1857-8) manuscript, comprising the Contribution and Grundrisse, at a time of deepening economic crisis – writing to Frederick Engels that he was “working like mad all night and every night” to get it at least in rough shape before “the déluge5 – the 1860s were on the whole a relatively prosperous period. The next significant crisis, in fact, did not occur until 1873 (the onset of “the Long Depression,” lasting until 1896). Much of the attention of the working class in the 1860s was directed towards issues of international politics, such as the American Civil War, the conflicts attending unification in Italy and Germany, the Polish uprising, and the Irish struggle for independence. Then, with the end of the decade came the Franco-Prussian War – the last major European war before 1914 – and the Paris Commune.

It was, in fact, out of efforts to forge international working-class political solidarity that the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) came into being on September 28, 1864.6 What is striking is the extent to which it was the International, born entirely from a working-class initiative, that seized and imposed itself on Marx. Not only did he have nothing to do with the idea in the first place, but his correspondence in the years before this historic turning point suggests that if anything he might have been expected to have been sceptical, and to have kept aloof from it.

Only six months earlier, Engels had remarked with respect to the possibility of re-issuing his The Condition of the Working Class in England that “this is not a suitable moment in any case, now that the English proletariat’s revolutionary energy has all but completely evaporated and the English proletarian has declared himself in full agreement with the dominancy of the bourgeoisie.”7 Writing back the following day, Marx mentioned that he had attended the large meeting called by the London Trades Union Council on March 26 to support the Northern states in their struggle to end slavery, and oppose possible British intervention on the side of the South. “The working men themselves spoke very well indeed,” he noted, “without a trace of bourgeois rhetoric or the faintest attempt to conceal their opposition to the capitalists.” Yet he continued, “How soon the English workers will throw off what seems to be a bourgeois contagion remains to be seen.”8

Beyond scepticism as to the readiness of the working class, he was now deeply committed to completing his theoretical critique of political economy and the capitalist system. In the period of his responding to Vogt he had good reason to emphasize that the Communist League belonged to history, that it was he himself who had moved to dissolve it years before, and even that he had belonged to no organization since. Still, writing to Ferdinand Freiligrath (another Red 48er) in connection with the Vogt affair, Marx went significantly further:

since 1852 I had not been associated with any association and was firmly convinced that my theoretical studies were of greater use to the working class than my meddling with associations which had now had their day on the Continent…. Whereas you are a poet, I am a critic and for me the experiences of 1849-52 were quite enough.9

One would hardly anticipate based on this, or anything else he expressed since entering into serious economic study, that from virtually the day of its founding the International would become the constant focus of Marx’s efforts and attention for eight years and more. Indeed, he would need to steal time from it to complete Capital (occasionally even claiming to be out of town so he could write undisturbed by the press of its business). Yet he did not withdraw from it. The International became the most significant historical development in working-class unity and collective action to his day, and the potential that he perceived in it from its inception made it impossible for him to stand apart.

When the Communist League was formed in 1847 through merger of the League of the Just and the Communist Correspondence Committee of Brussels (of which Marx and Engels were founding members), it was a secret organization committed to a revolution that would end existing class society and usher in a new age of equality and true human freedom. Marx induced the League to set aside the traditional trappings of secret societies as previously established by revolutionary groups and workers in trades. Secrecy was of course still necessary for a group dedicated to revolution. With its reorganization, the League commissioned Marx and Engels to write its statement of purpose, and The Manifesto of the Communist Party could hardly have been more explicit in its call for revolution.

What is so striking in contrast is the extent to which the IWA did not take the form of an explicitly revolutionary organization, but instead engaged in what might be called class politics in ordinary times. This is not merely a matter of its rhetoric. To be sure, when Marx wrote to Engels about the founding meeting and its aftermath, which included composing the Association’s “Inaugural Address”, he noted the real limits as to what could be expected:

It was very difficult to frame the thing so that our view should appear in a form that would make it acceptable to the present outlook of the workers’ movement…. It will take time before the revival of the movement allows the old boldness of language to be used.10

If the workers were not ready for bold language, they certainly did not found their Association to undertake revolution. Yet that this clearly was no rebirth of the old revolutionary politics did not prevent Marx from interpreting the fact that the meeting was “chock-full” as a sign that “there is now evidently a revival of the working classes taking place.” And, far from holding back from the Association, to the founding of which he was invited as a non-speaking presence on the platform, he accepted membership not only on the provisional organizing committee, but on the sub-committee charged with drafting a statement of rules and principles.

The difference is also not simply a matter of stated objectives. In the Manifesto, for example, the stated goals include a “graduated income tax” and “Free education for all children in public schools.”11 The Communist League was nonetheless seriously and immediately committed to revolution. Within the IWA, Marx not only did not hide his ultimately revolutionary goals, but included them from the start in the Inaugural Address and Rules of the Association.

The Address began not with the spectre of revolution haunting Europe, but with the “fact that the misery of the working masses has not diminished from 1848 to 1864.”12 After rehearsing both the facts of that misery and the crushing political defeat after 1848, Marx pointed only to two “compensating features”: the Ten Hours Bill and the growth of the cooperative movement. Still, his conclusion was that “To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes.”13 The Rules – unanimously adopted and published by the Association together with the Address – were even less ambiguous. They stated that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,” called for “the abolition of all class rule,” and asserted that “the economical emancipation of the working classes” was the ultimate goal.14 The concluding words of the Address even echoed those of the Manifesto: “Proletarians of all countries, Unite!”

Yet, where the Manifesto was directly a call for revolution, the founding documents of the International, the policies adopted at its Congresses, and the organizational undertakings over the course of its existence all focussed on precisely the task of building and uniting – in the open – a mass political instrument for the working class. It is not that Marx was ever in any way less committed to revolution, let alone converted to reform. Nor were he and his closest associates alone among IWA members in advocating for revolution. As profoundly different as they were in their politics, Bakunin and his supporters – who eventually outnumbered those who stood with Marx – were no less committed to the idea of revolutionary change rather than reform. The key difference between Marx and Bakunin, indeed, lay precisely in the former’s recognition that a revolutionary transformation presupposed a political process; that in the first instance a political revolution was necessary, and that this required the real and substantial development of working-class political agency. It was to this end, from the beginning, that Marx devoted his energies to the International.

This purpose fit with the whole impetus behind the founding of the IWA. Although the development of capitalist economic relations and of national workers’ organizations varied enormously across Europe,15 there was a great deal shared at the level of progressive political positions, particularly in the international arena, as well as with respect to basic rights and social policies. The founding meeting was called in the wake of a confluence of international issues – Italian unification, American Civil War and Polish Uprising – that had brought British workers together with visiting French workers and resident workers from other countries.16 In addition to the issues of peace, freedom and an end to slavery, and causes of national self-determination, the leading issues on which workers virtually everywhere agreed involved political rights and electoral democracy, the right to organize with respect to their labour, preventing recourse to foreign strikebreakers, the reduction of working hours, and (still) progressive taxation and free public education. Aside from the many issues that were directly international, the value of international cooperation could be seen in the fact that, as Marx observed in his Address, continental governments had been obliged to follow the example of English factory legislation after that victory had been won. Even reformist workers embraced the gains to be made on these issues, while for Marx their achievement embodied the real substance of “the political reorganisation of the working men’s party” for which he had called in the Address.

Divergences in economic development, working-class organization, and politics

Across Europe, the situation of the working class was different in each country. There existed profound national differences in the form and extent of capitalist production, hugely disparate historical experiences and ideological tendencies, a range of nationally-specific characteristic forms of workers’ organization, and enormous divergences with respect to political situations and forms of state.

In the first place, the capitalist mode of production was not old, but very recent; and it had not developed originally throughout Western Europe, but only in England. These claims remain controversial for many, despite a growing body of evidence that supports them.[17 But it is virtually universally recognized that industrial development on the European continent lagged significantly behind that in Britain. Belgium was the first continental nation to undergo significant capitalist development; France grew relatively slowly at least until the 1870s; and Germany came from far behind but then rapidly surpassed France.18 Marx himself weighed in on the unique status of Britain in 1870:

Although the revolutionary initiative will probably start from France, only England can act as a lever in any seriously economic revolution. It is the only country where there are no longer any peasants, and where land ownership is concentrated in very few hands. It is the only country where almost all production has been taken over by the capitalist form, in other words with work combined on a vast scale under capitalist bosses. It is the only country where the large majority of the population consists of wage-labourers. It is the only country where the class struggle and the organization of the working class into trade unions have actually reached a considerable degree of maturity and universality. Because of its domination of the world market, it is the only country where any revolution in the economic system will have immediate repercussions on the rest of the world.19

He concluded, “England cannot be treated simply as a country along with other countries. It must be treated as the metropolis of capital.”

The extent to which France truly differed from England has rarely been accorded proper recognition, since it was not simply a matter of degree. An essential condition of the capitalist mode of production is that capital controls the process of production through management, which is referred to as the subordination (or subsumption) of labour to capital. Marx in addition recognized that there was not only the formal subordination of labour to capital, but also its real subordination, through which capital not only has the inherent right to control production, but actively intervenes to do so.20 In France, however, workers – in legal principle and in practice within the workplace – largely retained the right to control production themselves.21 In labour law there had long existed a fundamental difference between louage d’ouvrage (contract for work) and louage de service (contract of service).22 This distinction continues to this day: someone working under louage d’ouvrage is essentially a “contractor”, recognized in law as not being a subordinate of the person contracting for service, and retaining rights with respect to the work. The louage de service, by contrast, was originally the characteristic contract for a subordinate person, such as in domestic service, and has in the 20th century become the basis for the standard capitalist contract of employment.23

Whereas for much of the 19th century British labour law built upon and strengthened the common law relationship of “master and servant”, labour law in France from 1789 to the latter part of the 19th century instead built upon the liberty of the worker. Legal oversight of labour contracts was transformed from a police matter of public order into a civil issue of mutual contractual obligations, overseen by local labour tribunals.24 In this regard, “the contrast between France and England between 1789 and 1875 was therefore complete.”25 On the English side, “a logic of industrial subordination” took the employers’ good faith for granted; on the French side, “a concern for fairness” instead actively compensated for inequality in economic status, holding employers to account for the consequences of their management.26 In France there was a formal recognition of the difference between “workers” (ouvriers) and “day labourers” (journaliers, who were under louage de service) with the latter comprising only 10% of industrial employees, and enduring real subordination to the commands of the employer – unlike the “workers”, who continued to enjoy louage d’ouvrage. Indeed, there is a “perfect pattern of inverse symmetry” between France and England with respect to collective bargaining versus face to face negotiations by individual workers.27 In France collective bargaining was banned, but workers benefited from the legal recognition of their rights as individuals relative to their employer; in England workers were personally subject to their employer as “master”, but increasingly the law made room for the “voluntary” choice of collective representation.

As a result of the French Revolution – buttressed locally by workers’ demands, and seemingly without concern at higher levels of the state – legal practice insisted on recognizing contractual equality in social terms, not just in formal economic terms. This was grounded upon the liberty of the individual worker, with local labour tribunals acting as conciliators seeking to balance interests and achieve peace and fairness in the workplace. It is clear, therefore, based upon a large and growing body of evidence, that the basic capitalist social relationship of the subordination of labour to capital in industry was very far from fully realizable – if perhaps not actually illegal – down to the last decades of the 19th century. Just as the French Revolution had the effect of buttressing the rights and customs of peasants, preventing any development of capitalist production on the land, so also it not merely reinforced but greatly increased the rights of workers in industry. This provided a profoundly different context for labour.

It was not, of course, as if the French state took away all rights of property owners; but it had a predisposition towards benefiting great property holders in relation to the state itself and large-scale trade and industry, while generally neglecting the position of small-scale proprietors in relation to production. This state-centric form of class relations had been characteristic of the old regime, and while important institutional changes certainly followed as a result of the Revolution, the continuity is striking.28 This entrenchment of pre-capitalist economic patterns goes a long way towards explaining the slow rate of industrialization in France, and sheds light on the historically distinctive development of its labour organizations.

It has long been recognized that, after the Revolution abolished guilds as holdovers from the feudal past, the workers continued to rely upon their compagnonnages, journeymen’s societies that equally had roots in the middle ages.29 In addition, workers increasingly developed various forms of mutual-aid society. Together with the legal regime of louage d’ouvrage, these forms both expressed and reinforced a corporatist character in workers’ organizations. The form of workers’ associations stood in integral, yet ironic, connection with the recognition of the rights of workers relative to employers: workers in a given trade developed a collective identity with respect to social needs and political participation, in part on the basis of their relative security and strongly held identity as individual members of that trade. This relative strength of French workers as individuals contrasted greatly with the characteristic form of capitalist social relations of wage labour, above all as realized in England, and provided a powerful historical foundation for the development of syndicalism in France.

Of course, workers’ interests were not always met through the conciliation of the labour tribunals, and strikes did occur. In keeping with the strong legal recognition of their rights as individuals, as well as the role of the state in preserving “public order”, strikes were entirely illegal until 1864, and strikers were frequently prosecuted.30 In the absence of collective bargaining, with most terms of employment recognized with respect to the trade as a whole in each locality, there were no trade unions as such. When, therefore, workers did resort to strikes, they organized ad hoc, secret, sociétés de resistance solely for that purpose – yet another development that underpinned French syndicalism. All of these tendencies were profoundly reinforced by the small scale and artisanal production typical of French industry – as late as 1896, 36% of industrial workers were employed in workshops of 5 or fewer, and 64% in workplaces of less than 50.31

 These syndicalist tendencies were expressed not only in the strength of various anarchist movements, but also in the difficulty of forging a socialist political organization. In 1880, Jules Guesde met with Marx to draft the program for the French Workers’ Party. Marx dictated its preamble, and collaborated on the sections of minimum political and economic demands.32 Ironically, however, it was after Guesde (with Marx’s own son-in-law Paul Lafargue and other leaders of the party) demonstrated that the minimum demands were to be little more than a lure to attract workers – as opposed to means both to develop class organization and ameliorate social conditions – that Marx made the famous assertion that if this was Marxism then “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist.”33 Far from being a potent political force, this party was challenged by several other socialist parties, to say nothing of the anarchists. With the heavy repression of the left after the Paris Commune, and unions only given real status in 1884, the strong syndicalist currents and relatively weak formal economic organization of the working class continued long after the end of the 19th century.

While, unlike Britain, France remained a largely rural society in the period of the International – indeed, even in 1914 60% of the population was rural34 – there was nonetheless a good deal of industrial production, albeit mostly on a small scale and with limited subordination of workers to capital. Germany, by contrast, had seen much less development of industry in any form prior to the mid-19th century, but rapid growth from that point led its manufacturing to surpass even that of Britain before the First World War.35 Yet, at the time of the founding of the International, Germany was the only country in which a real socialist party existed, the General German Workers’ Association established by Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863. Not only did Lassalle support German unification even under the reactionary Prussian monarchy, but he met with and sought to work with its chief minister, Bismarck.36 This seemingly strange political cooperation, however, made sense on both sides. On the one hand, unification of Germany was long a goal of the left (though Marx, as well as like-minded socialists and radical democrats, rejected the idea of doing so through the Prussian monarchy). On the other, Bismarck was not afraid to work with working-class leaders who would contribute to his nationalist project (witness his appointment of Lothar Bucher, a radical democrat of 1848 and intimate of Lassalle, as an aide37).

Bismarck’s willingness to coopt even socialist revolutionaries, and to introduce extensive measures of state welfare – while also wielding the power of the state in the Anti-Socialist Laws – combined with the state-centric legacy of Lassalle’s politics, gave a peculiar stamp to the development of the labour movement in Germany. What is most striking is the extent of working-class political development relative to that of trade unions. Not only did Germany have the first working-class socialist political organization, but it had the second as well: the “Eisenach” Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, founded in 1869. Under the leadership of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, the Eisenachers declared themselves from their founding to be a branch of the International, and lent important support to Marx in its last years. After these parties merged into the Social Democratic Party in 1875 (adopting a statement of principles that was, however, importantly criticized by Marx38), it rapidly developed into a powerful political force and the largest socialist party in the world.39 While it is famously recognized that the labour unions associated with the Social Democratic Party became strongly reformist, notwithstanding the party’s formal commitment to Marx’s ideas and the cause of socialist revolution, it is the prior development of significant socialist political organizations that is truly distinctive in Germany, and it shaped the working class movement there as a whole.

The working-class movement in England differed from those of both France and Germany in profoundly important ways. As noted above, Marx recognized it to be capitalist to a unique degree even in the 1870s. It was England that held priority in developing the form of industrial production that characterized capitalist social relations, proper. The long battle through which capitalists established their subordination of workers in production was fought here first, and in response the working-class trade union movement developed early.40 Despite heavy legal suppression in the first quarter of the 19th century, there was a long history of workers’ economic organization, and effective mobilization to achieve gains such as the Ten Hours Bill, prior to the formal legalization of unions in 1871. Although important political organization existed in the era of Chartism, no political party ensued from this, and English workers through their unions mostly collaborated with the Liberal party through the end of the 19th century. It had been British trade unionists who were instrumental in founding the IWA, and despite the founding of such parties as the Social Democratic Federation in 1881 and (more significantly) the Independent Labour Party a decade later, the workers’ movement remained dominated by the unions until they themselves finally established the Labour Party in 1900.41

At the founding of the International, therefore, it is clear that even considering only the three major countries of European industrial capitalism42 there was enormous variation in the development of the capitalist mode of production, and correspondingly great differences in the forms of workers’ organization, both economic and political. This is evident even apart from the profound differences in the forms of state across Europe. Britain had its liberal parliamentary regime, yet even after the Second Reform Act less than 60% of urban male workers – and far fewer in the countryside – had the vote.43 Although France had adult male suffrage, and Prussia the three-class franchise,44 elections had little meaning in either, and Prussia had yet to unify Germany. These variations in the form of state were enormously significant. While Marx’s reasons for dedicating himself to building a working-class political movement internationally may be readily understood, the challenges of doing so under such varied conditions can hardly be overstated.

Political currents within the International

 One of the greatest challenges lay in the profusion of cross-cutting political movements. As is clear from the forgoing, there were many different political tendencies among the European working classes. All the major currents, moreover, co-existed within the IWA. Among them were several with which Marx had to deal.

British workers were above all committed to their trade unionism, though there were numbers of individuals – especially former Chartists and emigrés from the aftermath of 1848 – who adhered to developed political perspectives. The London Trades Council was particularly active politically, having organized meetings such as those supporting the struggle against slavery and the Polish Uprising, to say nothing of the founding of the International itself. Outside the circle of those immediately involved in the IWA, however, support for progressive causes did not much translate into active politics. While it may well be a mistake to attribute inherent “trade union consciousness” to those primarily committed to the economic organization of the working class, it is certainly the case that the British membership of the International was overwhelmingly reformist in orientation.

The French workers who had joined in the founding meeting of the International were very largely influenced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. His emphasis on the right of the individual to the proceeds of labour; his opposition to political organization, but also to strikes; the great role that “mutualism”45 played in his thought: all these resonated powerfully with the largely artisanal French workers.46 A case can be made that Proudhonism was the primary current against which Marx had to struggle down to 1867, when the beginning of a wave of strikes – in which active support by the IWA played an important role – signalled an important shift away from Proudhon.47

Mikhail Bakunin was a very different anarchist thinker (though that term was no more common at that time than was “Marxist”). The relationship between Marx and Bakunin changed tremendously over time. At the time of the International’s founding, Marx wrote to Engels that he had seen him for the first time since 1848, and liked him very much, “more so than previously,” adding: “On the whole, he is one of the few people whom after 16 years I find to have moved forwards and not backwards.”48 Yet the history of the second half of the brief life of the International revolved around the growing opposition between Marx and his supporters, and Bakunin and his own.49

Another French current was represented by Louis Auguste Blanqui, revolutionist par excellence, who had taken part in numerous conspiracies and every uprising and revolution, from joining the Carbonari in the 1820s, to being elected president of the Paris Commune in 1871 (though already under arrest by the Versailles government). While he was undoubtedly a socialist in at least the broad sense of the term, his primary commitment was to making political revolution, from which change would be introduced. As Engels characterized the man and his movement:

Blanqui is essentially a political revolutionary, a socialist only in sentiment, because of his sympathy for the sufferings of the people, but he has neither socialist theory nor definite practical proposals for social reforms. In his political activities he was essentially a “man of action”, believing that, if a small well-organised minority should attempt to effect a revolutionary uprising at the right moment, it might, after scoring a few initial successes, carry the mass of the people and thus accomplish a victorious revolution.50

If perhaps many socialists would not meet the stringent criteria of Engels, it is still true that for Blanqui the revolution itself came first. Blanquism, however, was not a significant force in the International before 1870. But after the bloody suppression of the Commune, many surviving Blanquists fled to London, where they immediately made an impact and were a force in the IWA’s last year.51 They opposed moving the General Council of the International to New York, and officially split to create a specifically Blanquist organization in opposition.52

The last significant political current of the period reflected the ideas of Lassalle. To a great extent, Lassalle’s nationalism and founding of a specifically German socialist party – to say nothing of his death immediately before the founding of the International – limited the influence of his ideas within the IWA. Marx and Engels had been in regular communication with him, and despite growing differences they mourned his passing. Although in many ways the primary influence of Lassalleanism was as an absence from, and even barrier to, the IWA, the doctrine of “the Iron Law of Wages” that Lassalle espoused did figure among the ideas to which members of the International adhered. That there was a limited “wages fund” in the economy, as a result of which efforts by trade unions to increase wages must be frustrated, was an idea that predated Lassalle; but the name he gave to the doctrine lent unwarranted “scientific” credibility to it and helped make it a force to be reckoned with. Many of the Germans who did belong to the International were influenced by Lassalle.

Marx’s politics and interventions in the International

Marx’s contributions to the International can be seen to correspond broadly to the course of its history. This was not, however, because he dominated it, however great his influence. The members of the International were never afraid to express their opinion or stand their ground, and eventually the tide turned against Marx and towards Bakunin. His success, particularly in the early years, followed in the first place from his deep and energetic commitment and constant attention to maintaining the vision he had for it. Again and again, Marx undertook obligations for day-to-day matters as well as grand statements of purpose and policy (which, of course, always had to be voted upon). At the same time, he revealed real talent in political organization, strategy and manoeuvring, which became particularly important in the later years.53

Marx’s role was especially important in relation to international issues. Soon after the Inaugural Address and Rules were adopted, the Central Council sent a message of congratulations written by Marx to Abraham Lincoln – “the single-minded son of the working class” – on his re-election:

The working men of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Anti-Slavery War will do for the working classes.54

He wrote in a similar vein on behalf of the International to President Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination, and subsequently (citing the letter to Lincoln) to the National Labor Union of the United States urging them to work for peace, to allow the working class to advance, at a time when “their would-be masters shout war.”55 Among his other interventions in relation to international issues were the well-known addresses on the Franco-Prussian War.

Marx also drafted a number of resolutions that were among those adopted at the Congresses of the International in 1866 and 1868.56 These covered such issues as: limitation of the working day to 8 hours; abolition of child labour (other than in connection with education); elimination of indirect taxes; replacement of standing armies with armed citizens; and general strikes as a means to prevent war.57 In 1869 he advocated a policy of free and compulsory public education, using the example of US states but arguing for nationally regulated systems to ensure equal quality regardless of local conditions.58 At the London Conference of 1871, Marx himself moved that “The Conference recommends the formation of female branches among the working class.”59 At the same conference he also moved that reports be prepared on “the means of securing the adhesion of the agricultural producers to the movement of the industrial proletariat.” By 1871, however, the struggle with the Bakuninists had already begun in earnest.

Although much of what he wrote reflected the progressive stances with which the International was founded, pressing for stronger but widely accepted policies of social justice, it was in putting forward positions dealing directly with the economic and political struggles of the working class that Marx was increasingly compelled to contend with opposing views within the IWA. In June 1865, he addressed two consecutive meetings of the General Council in London in order to refute the idea of a fixed wages fund in the economy (the “Iron Law of Wages”).60 This followed a series of speeches by the former Owenite and Chartist John Weston that maintained this view and argued that trade union efforts to raise wages would therefore necessarily have negative consequences. Marx’s intervention – virtually a short course in what he would publish as Capital – opened into weeks of debate on the subject, involving other members as well, until his view generally carried the day.

Subsequently, Marx defended trade unions in a resolution for the Geneva Congress of 1866: in the first instance, as necessary to workers’ struggle around “questions of wages and time of labour”; but, further, as “unconsciously… forming centres of organization of the working class” and having a crucial role “as organized agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.” Then, as a result of the growing wave of successful strikes organized with support from the International, his resolution to the 1868 Brussels Congress went further to assert that while “strikes are not a means to the complete emancipation of the working classes” they “are frequently a necessity in the actual situation of the struggle between labour and capital,” as well as to call for the organization of unions in trades where they did not exist, and for their joining together both locally and internationally. Through tireless efforts of this kind, Marx won growing support for his views, and increasingly displaced the influence of Lassalle and Proudhon on economic and labour issues.

The politics of Blanquism did not present such a great problem. It was neither nationalist, as Lassalle had been, nor anti-political, like Proudhon. Although, given their insurrectionary orientation, the Blanquists were not inclined to see the International in the same terms as Marx, their strong support for political organization and action meant they were not infrequently on the same side as Marx. The real issues were more deeply strategic: the difference between (a) building a workers’ movement that in the end would not only represent the whole of the class, but even be able to mobilize them as a class, and (b) organizing revolutionary insurrection in essentially the classic form of taking to the barricades.

Few Blanquists had been drawn to the International initially, because of the dominant role of Proudhonists among its French membership. But as the International’s success and recognition grew, and with the decline of Proudhonism after 1868, some Blanquists joined even before the Commune. Although Marx worked with the Blanquists, particularly against Bakunin, the basis for his politics was never similar, as became evident with the move of the General Council to New York. Marx’s interpretation of the Commune underscores the extent to which he saw revolutionary struggle in terms that differed greatly from theirs.

 Already in early August 1870, a month before the stunning French defeat at Sedan, Marx wrote to Engels that

If a revolution breaks out in Paris, it is questionable whether they will have the means and the leaders capable of offering serious resistance to the Prussians. One cannot remain blind to the fact that the 20-year-long Bonapartist farce has brought tremendous demoralisation in its wake. One would hardly be justified to rely on revolutionary heroism.61

This was not so much a question of whether a “Commune” might be formed, given the history of both 1789 and 1848. The question was whether a revolutionary insurrection in the 1870s – with France defeated, the Prussian army on the doorstep of Paris, and a National Assembly of all the old parties sitting at Versailles – could succeed.

There was, of course, no doubt once the Commune was established that Marx would support it. As he wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann,

If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to another, but to break it, and that is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting.62

Notwithstanding his frustration at their wasting time with trivia, failing to seize opportunities, and neglecting even to prepare adequately for the onslaught that was coming, it is clear not only in his published writing but also his letters that his admiration for the Communards in “storming the heavens” knew no bounds.63

Yet despite Marx’s several suggestions that success might have been possible, it is not only their many mistakes but the objective situation that seem to argue otherwise. Revolutionary heroism, as he had predicted, was not enough. At least ten thousand were left dead in the street, tens of thousands more transported, and the militant working class of Paris was depleted for a generation. As Marx well knew, a revolution requires more than heroic insurrection.

The greatest conflict Marx faced in the International was of course that with Bakunin, culminating in removal of the General Council to New York. Skirmishes were fought on several issues of policy, though the major battles were mainly organizational. Bakunin and his associates joined the IWA in 1868. The following year the subject of inheritance – abolition of which was a central tenet for Bakunin, and one of the few goals that might precede revolutionary abolition of the state – figured importantly as a policy issue. Marx produced a report, adopted by the General Council, that stressed that inheritance was only a problem because of the social power inherent in capital, and that in the struggle against capital “To proclaim the abolition of the right of inheritance as the starting point of the social revolution would only tend to lead the working class away from the true point of attack against present society.”64 After Bakunin spoke against the position, however, this report became the first from the General Council that failed to be adopted at an IWA Congress.

The most pointed policy struggle directly focussed upon the issue of political organization and action, against which the Bakunists were solidly arrayed. In this regard, Marx had the great advantage of having included the centrality of political struggle in both the Inaugural Address and Rules of the Association, though this was challenged (in part on the basis of bad translation). There were, therefore, several motions confirming the importance of workers’ political liberties and active political engagement in the last years of the International, and it is testimony to Marx’s own political skill that they passed. In offsetting the influence of Bakuninists, he drew support particularly from German delegates (whose increased involvement broadly corresponded to his own growing stature in Germany following the publication of Capital) and from the Blanquists.

 At the London Conference of 1871, it was the leading Blanquist (and Communard) Édouard Vaillant who moved

In the presence of an unbridled and momentarily victorious reaction, which stifles any claims of socialist democracy and intends to maintain by force the distinction between classes, the Conference reminds members of the Association that the political and social questions are indissolubly linked, that they are two sides of the same question meant to be resolved by the International: the abolition of class.

Workers must recognize no less than the economic solidarity that unites them and join their forces, on the political terrain as much as on the economic terrain, for the triumph of their cause.65

In response, the London Conference commissioned a resolution – subsequently drafted by Marx and Engels – for submission to the next Congress to supplement the revised Rules already adopted at the Conference in order to clarify the importance of political organization. This new Section 7a of the Rules, adopted by the 1872 Congress at The Hague, began

In its struggle against the collective power of the propertied classes, the working class cannot act as a class except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to all old parties formed by the propertied classes.66

This was of course a major political achievement for Marx.

With, however, German socialists focussing primarily on their two national parties and on the newly established Reich, the Blanquists committed to a fundamentally different conception of what the International should be, and the Bakuninists growing in strength, Marx recognized that the Association had reached a limit to what it might at the time achieve in terms of the politics to which he was committed. Indeed, there was a real possibility of its becoming either a Bakuninist association opposed to political organization, or a Blanquist association that largely ignored economic organization and struggle in favour of fomenting insurrection. In either case, the potential of the IWA to build a working-class political force and its capacity to advance progressive social policies in meaningful ways would be profoundly compromised. He therefore adroitly undertook to frustrate both political tendencies at the Hague Congress: on the one hand through a report that led to Bakunin being expelled (though the Congress balked at expelling all members of Bakunin’s secret organization within the IWA), and on the other, largely responding to the looming presence of Blanquist emigrés in London, by relocating the General Council to New York. In consequence, these fractious internal forces took their separate paths, leaving few behind with Marx and Engels. It really was this fact of fundamental political fragmentation and opposition, rather than the move to New York as such, that spelled the end of the International. The idea of a broad international movement, working together despite national differences and comprising a wide range of political ideas, with the common objective of building the capacity of the working class for revolutionary transformation of society while ameliorating their condition in the present, was – not for the last time – undone.

Marx was not a Leninist

Of course Marx was not a Leninist. When Marx died, Lenin had not yet turned 13. Yet issues of Marx’s politics have been approached from Lenin’s perspective for more than one hundred years now, often even by non-Leninists. This is not the place to take up a serious critique of Lenin,67 and one must be careful not to trivialize or reduce his ideas to simplistic caricatures. It is instructive, however, to locate Marx’s politics concretely in relation to those proposed by Lenin, and to contrast the two.

If the emancipation of the working class – and with it the whole of humanity – was to be the task of the workers themselves, then the first requirement was development of the capacity of that class to act in their own interests. It is precisely in this regard that Marx’s conception of class politics comes to the fore, and can be seen to be inherently different from the politics of reformists, insurrectionists, anarchists and Leninists alike. Marx was prepared to make great sacrifices to help the working class advance in its struggle. It always remained, however, the self-organization of the workers that was central. Workers had to make themselves collectively into agents who would end the state’s role as instrument of class-rule, and remake their lifetime of labour from a means of enriching the few into a collective realization and enjoyment of human potential. No single institution, leader, or ideological conception was either sufficient or irreplaceable for that to be achieved. It is this commitment to development of the working class, as such, into a social and political force that is most clearly revealed by Marx’s participation in the International.

Marx never became a reformist – contrary to the views of Eduard Bernstein, most notably68 – despite his efforts to ameliorate conditions of workers, engage in politics within existing states, and resist irresponsible calls to provocative action. By the same token, despite his abiding commitment to revolution and genuine support for the Commune, he was never an insurrectionist, and he certainly could conceive revolutionary change being achieved without taking to barricades. Marx also was never an anarchist, as such, though as early as 1843 he became the first political theorist ever to view the state – in itself, and regardless of how democratic it might be – as inherently a form of human alienation that needed to be transcended in achieving human emancipation.69 In this regard, he was so profoundly anti-statist to the end of his life that it might be said that his disagreement with anarchism70 was not with its end, but over the feasibility of its means. Finally, beyond all this, he was never a Leninist, and if anything more clearly not in his maturity than in his youth.

Fifty-four years passed between the Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, with the transfer of the International to New York not quite half-way between the two. As noted above, the International was very different from the Communist League, and had a different purpose. Moreover, the IWA clearly never had any of the characteristics that Lenin called for, either in a party as such, or subsequently in the Third International, which was founded directly on the Bolshevik party model.71 Most importantly, Marx never made any effort to introduce such characteristics.

To begin with, when Marx stressed that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” (as the first rule of the Association had it), he meant exactly that. In Marx’s resolutions submitted to and adopted at the Geneva Congress, the call for workers themselves to undertake “a statistical inquiry into the situation of the working classes of all countries” was posited not only to be able to know what needed to be done, but to demonstrate “their ability to take their own fate into their own hands.” His resolution on cooperative labour went on to hold that

It is the business of the International Working Men’s Association to combine and generalize the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever.72

The extent to which the democratic practice of the IWA was real – and anything but a form of “democratic centralism” – can be seen in the difficulty Marx continuously had in dealing with the various other political currents. Yet, despite the growing battle with Bakunin, he made no effort to limit membership, a basic principle of the Bolshevik model. Indeed, the revised Rules of 1871 made the openness of membership even more explicit than the original Rules, stating that “Everybody who acknowledges and defends the principles of the International Working Men’s Association is eligible to become a member.”73 When Marx’s participation in the International is viewed in full, and without the filter of one or another expression of Leninism, the vivacity, openness and democracy of the politics that can be discerned is not merely a revelation, but an inspiration.

It is an inspiration that is desperately needed today. The situation of the working class internationally has (in relative terms) worsened even more in recent decades than it had when Marx wrote the Inaugural Address. The gains that workers achieved following the decisive global defeat of fascism more than two generations ago – a defeat won by working-class men and women determined to end not only rapacious and horrific oppression, but also economic vulnerability and immiseration – have been rolled back dramatically. Yet, as Marx noted then, there are compensating factors.

On the one hand, globalization and the extension of genuinely capitalist social relations of production have brought about a far greater economic commonality than existed in the era of the First International. National historical and cultural differences are of course still very real even within the confines of Europe, let alone globally. Yet, with Chinese capitalists now opening sweatshops in Italy, and with urbanization and digital communications bridging – if far from eliminating – many cultural divides, the capacity for international cooperation among labour movements is greater than ever. At the same time, on the other hand, despite the enormous oppressive power of states, and intimidating anti-labour practices of multinational giants and small-scale employers alike, significant advances have been achieved with respect to the rights of workers. These rights certainly are abused on a daily basis, but they exist in ways that they did not 150 years ago. If, therefore, the situation then called for workers to come together – and to find means to overcome not only profound social differences, but political differences as well – how much greater is both the need and the potential today. An important first step would be to recognize the value Marx himself saw in a movement like the International.


1. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Karl Marx-Frederick Engels, Collected Works, New York: International Publishers [MECW], Vol. 29, 1987), 257-419.

2. Ibid., 540-42, n. 57.

3. Marx’s letters of 1860 are preoccupied with Vogt’s calumnies, widely reported in Germany, including the astonishing claim that Marx had run a racket during the 1848 Revolution, extorting money from vulnerable communists in Germany (MECW, Vol. 41, 1985), 43. The whole matter is documented in Marx’s Herr Vogt (MECW, Vol. 17, 1981), 21-329.

4. Karl Marx, Economic Manuscript of 1861-63 (MECW, Vol. 30, 1888), 455, n. 1.

5. Marx to Engels, 8 Dec. 1861 (MECW, Vol. 40, 1983), 217.

6. Marx to Engels, 4 Nov. 1864 (MECW, Vol. 42, 1987) 15-18, nn. 18, 19. For a brief history of the International, and a selection of its most important documents (including those that are cited here) see Marcello Musto (ed.), Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

7. Engels to Marx, 8 April 1863 (MECW, Vol. 41), 465.

8. Marx to Engels, 9 April 1863 (MECW, Vol. 41), 468.

9. Marx to Ferdinand Freiligrath, 29 Feb. 1860 (MECW, Vol. 41), 81-82.

10. Marx to Engels, 4 Nov. 1864 (MECW, Vol. 42) spells out his view of the meeting and his intentions in what followed.

11. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (MECW, Vol. 6, 1976), 505.

12. Karl Marx, “Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association” (MECW, Vol. 20, 1985), 5.

13. Ibid., 12.

14. Karl Marx, “Provisional Rules of the Association” (MECW, Vol. 20), 14.

15. The original Rules of the Association referred specifically to Europe, which only was changed in the revised rules written by Marx and Engels in 1871.

16. David Fernbach, “Introduction,” in Karl Marx, The First International and After (London: Penguin/NLR, 1974), 10-13.

17. I have discussed this in virtually all my previous work, and will cite here only George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution (London: Verso, 1987) and “Critical Thinking and Class Analysis: Historical Materialism and Social Theory,” Socialism and Democracy, 27:1 (March 2013), 19-56. The foundation for this historical conception lies in the work of Robert Brenner, most notably two articles collected (with rejoinders) in T.H. Aston, and C.H.E. Philpin (eds.) The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Ellen Meiksins Wood has contributed importantly to these ideas in Democracy Against Capitalism: Rethinking Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991) and The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002). A recent book by Michael Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution (Leiden: Brill, 2013) provides a lengthy historical analysis of the long development and late realization of industrial capitalism in England.

18. Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital (London: Sphere, 1977), 56; F. Crouzet, “The Historiography of French Economic Growth in the Nineteenth Century,” Economic History Review, 56:2, 223.

19. Karl Marx “The General Council to the Federal Council of Romance Switzerland,” (MECW, Vol. 21, 1985), 86.

20. Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (MECW, Vol. 35, 1996), 511. There is an enormous literature on this issue, drawing particularly on a chapter in Marx’s original manuscript analysing the formal and real “subsumption” of labour to capital, which was not included in Capital. I take account of the published text alone here simply because it is entirely sufficient to the point.

21. I am indebted for much of what follows on France to the analysis of Xavier Lafrance in his as yet unpublished doctoral dissertation, Citizens and Wage-Labourers: Capitalism and the Formation of a Working Class in France (York University, 2013)

22. Alain Cottereau, “Sens du juste et usages du droit du travail: une évolution contrastée entre la France et la Grande-Bretagne au XIXe siècle,” Revue d’histoire du XIXe siècle, 33:2 (Relations sociales et espace public, 2006), 101-20. (Published in English as “Industrial tribunals and the establishment of a kind of common law of labour in nineteenth-century France,” in Willibald Steinmetz, ed., Private Law and Social Inequality in the Industrial Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.)

23. Ibid., 103, 113-14.

24. Ibid., 105-109.

25. Ibid., 109, my translation.

26. Ibid., 112.

27. Ibid., 116.

28. See my analysis in Rethinking the French Revolution, 200-03.

29. For a classic typology of the forms of working-class organization in France, see Louis Levine, Syndicalism in France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914), 26-33. On the compagnonnages, and particularly their political role after the Revolution, see William H. Sewell Jr., Work and Revolution in France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

30. There were 14,000 prosecutions between 1825 and 1864, and 9,000 strikers were imprisoned (Robert J. Goldstein, Political Repression in 19th Century Europe, New York: Routledge, 2010, 58.)

31. Roger Magraw, “Socialism, Syndicalism and French Labour Before 1914,” in Dick Geary, ed., Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914 (Oxford: Berg, 1989), 49. Magraw offers an excellent overview of the role of syndicalism in French politics.

32. Karl Marx, “Preamble to the Programme of the French Workers’ Party” (MECW, Vol. 24, 1989), 340; Karl Marx and Jules Guesde, “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,” See also Engels’ letter to Eduard Bernstein, 25 Oct. 1881 (MECW, Vol. 46, 1992), 144-51.

33. A remark to Paul Lafargue that Engels reported to Bernstein (MECW, Vol. 46), 356.

34. Magraw, “Socialism, Syndicalism and French Labour before 1914,” 49.

35. Dick Geary, “Socialism and the German Labour Movement Before 1914,” in Geary, Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914, 102-03.

36. Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 199ff.

37. Ibid., 206-07.

38. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme” (MECW, Vol. 24, 1989), 75-99.

39. Geary, “Socialism and the German Labour Movement Before 1914,” 101.

40. Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution provides an excellent history of this struggle over control of production. The are many histories of English unions and working-class organization, but one would be hard pressed to recommend any work ahead of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).

41. See Gordon Phillips, “The British Labour Movement Before 1914,” in Geary, Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914.

42. Though Belgium was far more developed in industry on a per capita basis than either France or Germany, and its workers played a crucial role in the International, its small size undercut the impact it might otherwise have had.

43. Phillips, “The British Labour Movement Before 1914,” 39.

44. Geary, “Socialism and the German Labour Movement Before 1914,” 125.

45. Proudhon anticipated the transformation of society largely through the formation of producer cooperatives, and it was largely to the end of realizing this that he strongly advocated the idea of “the People’s Bank”.

46. Albert S Lindemann, A History of European Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 106.

47. Fernbach does see the history of the IWA in these terms, “Introduction” (note 16), 16-19.

48. Marx to Engels, 4 Nov. 1864 (MECW, Vol. 42, 1987), 18-19.

49. In 1874-75, Marx commented importantly on the text of Bakunin’s Statehood and Anarchy, throughout which Bakunin criticized Marx explicitly (MECW, Vol. 24), 485-526. Bakunin died in 1876. The literature on Marx and Bakunin is enormous.

50. Frederick Engels, “Programme of the Blanquist Commune Refugees” (MECW, Vol. 24), 13.

51. For more on Blanquism as a political force, see Patrick H. Hutton, The Cult of the Revolutionary Tradition: The Blanquists in French Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

52. Engels, “Programme of the Blanquist Commune Refugees,” 13.

53. This was, however, evident as early as his first letter to Engels on the founding of the IWA, in which he related finessing a dreadful statement of principles through his unanticipated preparation of the Inaugural Address, which was then met with unanimous approval in its stead.

54. Karl Marx, “To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America” (MECW, Vol. 20), 20.

55. Karl Marx, “Address to the National Labour Union of the United States” (MECW, Vol. 21, 1985), 53-55. The threat of war loomed in 1869 as the US pressed claims against Britain for damages resulting from the Alabama, a ship built in Britain and delivered to the Confederacy, and other violations of neutrality. The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sought the enormous sum of $2 billion, with the possible alternative of annexation of British Columbia, the Red River Colony, and Nova Scotia. The claims ultimately were resolved through arbitration.

56. Marx did not himself attend any of the Congresses until the last, at The Hague, in 1872, but he submitted resolutions through the General Council. There were, of course, other resolutions as well.

57. Office of General Council, International Working Men’s Association, Resolutions of the Congress of Geneva, 1866, and the Congress of Brussels, 1868 (London: IWMA, 1868).

58. Karl Marx, Synopses of Speeches on Education (August 10 and 17, 1869), in General Council, International Workingmen’s Association, The General Council of the First International, Minutes, 1868-1870 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 140-141, 146-147.

59. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Resolutions of the Conference of Delegates of the International Working Men’s Association” (MECW, Vol. 22, 1986 ), 424.

60. Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit [sometimes published as Wages, Price and Profit] (MECW, Vol. 20), 102-59.

61. Marx to Engels, 8 Aug 1870 (MECW, Vol. 44, 1989) p. 39.

62. Marx to Kugelmann, 12 April 1871 (MECW, Vol. 44), 131.

63. Aside from The Civil War in France (MECW, Vol. 22), 307-59, see Marx’s letters of 12, 17 and 26 April, 13 May and 12 June, 1871 (MECW, Vol. 44).

64. Karl Marx, “Report of the General Council on the Right of Inheritance,” in General Council of the First International, Minutes, 1868-1870, 322-24.

65. Jacques Freymond, et al. (eds.), La Première Internationale, Vol. II (Geneva: E. Droz, 1962), 191-93.

66. International Workingmen’s Association, 5th Congress, The Hague Congress of the First International: September 2-7, 1872, Vol. 1, Minutes and Documents (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 282.

67. Which in any case would also have to take account of Lenin as a Marxist – an entirely different matter – as well as the unique historical context created by the Bolshevik Revolution.

68. Bernstein did not deny that Marx was a revolutionary, especially originally, but saw a second, reformist current in his ideas, which he sought particularly to develop. Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1912).

69. George C. Comninel, “Emancipation in Marx’s Early Work,” Socialism and Democracy, 24: 3 (November 2010), 72.

70. That is, socialist or communist – not “libertarian” – anarchism.

71. On Lenin’s conception of the party, see V.I. Lenin, What Is to Be Done? in Collected Works, Vol. 5, (Moscow: Progress, 1961), 347-530. On the organization of the Third International see Helmut Gruber (ed.), International Communism in the Era of Lenin: A Documentary History (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967) and Fernando Claudin, The Communist movement: from Comintern to Cominform (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975)

72. General Council, Resolutions of the Congress of Geneva (note 57), original emphasis.

73. Karl Marx, “General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association” (MECW, Vol. 23, 1988), 7.

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