Book Review: The History of the International – Part 2
History of First International by G. M. Stekloff. (Martin Lawrence. 12/6.)
The International Working Men’s Association was dominated numerically by the followers of Proudhon, who appealed to the petty bourgeois outlook of the lands where petty enterprise still held the field.
One of Proudhon’s supporters, “Fribourg,” writing a history of the International, brings out the Proudhonists’ opposition to strikes and their belief in petty credit reforms as the road to prosperity. He says:
The question of strikes, so inopportunely raised by the Blanquists at this epoch (the time of the first bureau), had no more determined opponents than the members of the International. Their advice was sometimes listened to, and to the International belongs the honour of having frustrated all attempts at a strike in the building trade during the years 1865, 1866 and 1867. Consumption, production, credit, solidarity, building societies, penny banks, mutual credit, societies —such were for years the questions discussed every evening by this little comity of workers.
There we have an indication of the tremendous difficulties under which Marx and his supporters worked. On the one side, English Labour leaders, like George Odger, George Howell and Randall Cremer, who | were really Liberals (masquerading as Labour men), and, on the other side, the anarchist and reformist supporters of Proudhon and Bakunin.
The latter, with his high-sounding fury and anti-political policy, was able to win a good deal of support.
From the time the International was organised, in 1862, till its last Congress took place at the Hague in 1872, its history was a struggle between these elements with a widely-diverging policy. Marx struggled to teach the necessity of organisation and of independent political action to promote the victory of the International Working Class.
Writing of Bakunin, the author of this history gives a good summary of the background of his ideas. He says:
Bourgeois society was breaking the chains imposed on it by the pre-capitalist system, and was undermining the foundations of the old order; but it was itself still unstable, and had not yet been able to organise its strength for a fight on two fronts, with the feudalists, on the one hand, and with the developing forces of the working class on the other. The titanic figure of Bakunin seems to have been a natural outgrowth of this critical period when the pre-bourgeois order was giving place to the bourgeois order. His figure was an appropriate one in such an epoch, when social ties, political institutions, and ideas were all in a state of flux. It was appropriate to days when the old governing class had been defeated, and when the new governing class was still weak but was inspired with vague but grandiose hopes—hopes begotten of the chaotic ferment that characterised this transition period. Naturally, people’s heads were easily turned, especially when the people were hot-heads like Bakunin. Thus, although this historic convulsion was nothing more than that caused by the efforts of bourgeois society to throw off its swaddling-clothes, Bakunin fancied that the final collapse of capitalism was imminent. What had really arrived was the end of the first phase in the development of capitalist society; but he, taking the beginning for the end, believed that the prologue of the social revolution was being played. This mistake arose from the fact that, substantially, he was not the ideological expression of the industrial proletariat, now undergoing consolidation, and developing concurrently with the development of the bourgeoisie. What Bakunin represented, ideologically speaking, was the economically backward countries like Russia and Italy. In these, and especially in Russia, capitalism was still in the period of what is known as “primitive accumulation,” and capitalist exploitation of the workers and the semi-proletarian sections of the peasantry was only in its initial stages. In actual fact, the aspirations, instincts, and elemental protests of those among the peasants who were being ruined by capitalist developments, played a considerable part in Bakunin’s philosophy. They were the cause of his hostility to Communism; and of his still greater hostility to Social Democracy; they accounted for his antagonism to the State in all its forms, and for his anarchist activities; to a great extent, they determined both the form and the content of his insurrectionist philosophy.
The Bolsheviks of the Marx-Engels Institute at Moscow, who publish this work, can draw many lessons from paragraphs such as that just quoted.
It seems applicable in a large degree to the rise of Bolshevism in Russia to-day, and the direct action and insurrection policy of modern Communists seems to be largely borrowed from Bakunin.
Bakunin formed many secret societies in opposition to the International itself, and the programme of one of the Bakunist “Alliances” is quoted by the author:
Atheism, the complete negation of all authority, the annulment of law, the denial of civil obligations, the substitution of free humanity for the State, collective ownership; labour was in this programme represented to be the foundation of social organisation, manifesting itself in the form of a great federation from below upwards.
Marx was so much occupied by his writings and his work on the General Council in London that he was only able to attend the last Congress. But the history under review shows the advice and suggestions constantly made by him to endeavour to defeat the enemies of the International who turned up at the various Congresses.
The keen efforts of Marx and the part he played in the International is shown in the Manifestoes written for the International before and after the Commune of Paris, when such a crushing blow was made against the International.
The efforts made to unite the world’s workers from 1864 to 1872 suffered from the lack of development of the workers, due to their social environment and the mixture of reactionary notions to which they succumbed. The International, however, was worth while as a pioneer step in bringing home to all the need for international solidarity. Its weaknesses belonged to its time. Many of the causes of its decline explain to-day the decline of the Third International, which endeavoured to bring together a collection of mutually warring policies and hammer them into a movement with a programme adopted from the most backward country economically—Russia.
In the course of narrating the history of the International, the author frequently attempts to oppose Anarchist policies by policies equally absurd. On the question of reform, he ignores the fact that the workers’ struggles for reforms may be justified in the early days of the system, but that such efforts are now out of date.
One such optimistic statement may be quoted. He says:
Reforms that are wrested by the workers from their class antagonists are blows that shake the bourgeois State, and when frequently repeated they may shake it to its foundations. Whereas to the bourgeoisie partial reforms seem buttresses that are needed to strengthen the capitalist building, in the hands of the working class these same reforms may become levers used to shake the stability of the edifice—provided always that those who are to utilise the reforms in this way have a true understanding of the general course of the historical struggle of the proletariat.
But a little later he makes another statement, which shows the dangers of reform agitation. He says:
Of course, from time to time, an unsuccessful struggle for reform may end in the destruction of the working class organisations which that struggle has called into existence. Such was the fate of the Chartist Movement. Nevertheless the usual effect of the struggle for reforms is to promote the growth of working class organisations. We must not generalise unduly. Sometimes the realisation of reforms for which a struggle halt been in progress, will take the fire out of large sections of the working class, and may even lead to the temporary arrest of the whole working class movement. That is what happened in Britain, for instance, during the late ‘sixties, and the early ’seventies of the nineteenth century (see below). In other cases, the impossibility of achieving the reforms that are desired by the proletariat has the same result.
In a short article we cannot do justice to this book, which is a mine of information and would well repay a worker’s study. In closing, we will quote the farewell speech of Marx after the last Congress (1872), which was held at the Hague. Addressing the meeting (at Amsterdam), Marx said:
Fellow-citizens! Let us think of the fundamental principle of the International—Solidarity. We shall attain our great goal if we can establish this life-giving principle firmly among all the workers of all lands. The revolution must be the work of solidarised efforts. We can learn this from the great example of the Commune of Paris. Why did the Commune fall? It fell because there did not simultaneously occur in all the capitals—in Berlin, in Madrid and the rest—a great revolutionary movement linked with the mighty upheaval of the Parisian proletariat.
For my own part, I shall continue to work at my chief task, at promoting the solidarity of the workers, which I regard as so momentous for the future. Rest assured that I shall not cease to work for the International; and that the years that remain to me, like the years I have already lived, will be consecrated to the triumph of the Socialist idea, which we doubt not, will one day lead to the dominion of the proletariat.