1970s >> 1973 >> no-831-november-1973

Marx: the Man and his Work – Part 2

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Marx and the 1st International

Marx associated himself with working-class organizations although they were not Socialist in character. In his day as today, very few workers had a Socialist policy.

The International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) was founded at a meeting in St. Martin’s Hall, London, on 28th September 1864. It was not the work of one individual, and it was not “a small body with a large head”. It was neither “an insignificant shadow” nor “a terrible menace”, as it was described by various sections of the press of the period. The First International was a transitional form of the working-class struggle for better conditions, and it was as necessary as it was transitional.

In the capitalist mode of production, an embodied contradiction both produces and destroys modern states. It intensifies all national antagonisms to the utmost and at the same time it creates all nations in its own image. So long as the capitalist mode of production exists these contradictions are insoluble, and therefore the brotherhood of man about which we have heard from the apologists for capitalism has had no existence. While large-scale industry preaches freedom and peace between nations, it also has turned the world into an armed camp as never before in history. However, with the disappearance of capitalist production its contradiction will vanish also.

Early in the history of the working-class movement a tendency towards internationalism made itself felt. This is a vital condition for the very existence of the workers’ struggle for emancipation. The workers possess no magic wand in this respect any more than in any other — there is no level and easy path. The modern working class has to fight its battles under conditions created by historical development. It cannot overcome these conditions by any short cut but can triumph over them only by understanding, in the sense that to understand is to overcome.

This understanding was made more difficult owing to the circumstances of Marx’s time. The beginnings of the working-class movement coincided with, crossed and recrossed, the beginnings of a number of national states which were founded as a result of the capitalist mode of production. By drawing lessons from the struggles of the different sections of the International with their capitalist governments, Marx hoped to win various groups to his point of view and mould them into an international Socialist party. On the General Council of the International, and at its international conferences, he worked hard to realize his hopes.

Marx’s chief rôle in the First International began after it was organized. He soon became the guiding spirit of it. To him fell the task of presenting the inaugural address. It must be admitted that this address contained many compromises and concessions. Marx himself in a letter to Engels, dated 4th November 1864, in which he deals with the formation of the International, states:

  I was obliged to insert two phrases about “duty” and “right” into the Preamble to the Statutes, ditto “truth, morality and justice”, but these are placed in such a way that they can do no harm.

 

The address opens by recording the fact that in the years from 1848 to 1864 the poverty of the working class did not diminish, although this period had been one of unparalleled industrial development and commercial growth. It proves its point by comparing the statistics published in the official Blue Book concerning the poverty of the English working class with the official figures used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Gladstone, in a Budget speech to show “the intoxicating augmentation of wealth and power” which had taken place in the same period but had been “entirely confined to the classes of property”. The address exposed this contradiction of English conditions because England was the leading country of European trade and industry, but it pointed out that similar conditions existed on a somewhat smaller scale in, making allowances for local differences, all the continental countries where large-scale industry was beginning to develop.

 

All over the world this “intoxicating augmentation of wealth and power” was “entirely confined to the classes of property”, with the one exception perhaps that a small section of the workers as in England were receiving somewhat higher wages, though even this improvement was cancelled out by the general increase in prices.

 

   Everywhere the great mass of the working class sank into ever deeper misery to the same extent as the upper class rose in the social scale. In all the countries of Europe it is now an irrefutable fact, undeniable for every unprejudiced enquirer and denied only by those who have an interest in awakening deceptive hopes in others, that neither the perfection of machinery nor the application of science to industry and agriculture, neither the resources and artifices of communication, neither the conquests of new markets nor free trade, or all these things combined can succeed in abolishing the misery of the working class, and that on the contrary, every new development of the creative power of labour is calculated on the false bases of existing conditions to intensify the social antagonisms and aggravate the social conflict. During this intoxicating period economic progress, starvation raised itself almost to the level of a social institution in the capital of the British Empire. The period is characterised in the annals of history by accelerated return, the extended compass and the deadly effects of the social pest known as industrial and commercial crises.

 

The address then went on to look at the defeat of the working-class movement in 1850, and came to the conclusion that this period had its compensating characteristics. Two facts were stressed, first of all the legal enactment of the ten-hour day with its effects on the English working class. The struggle for the legal limitation of the working day had been a direct intervention in the conflict between the blind forces of the law of supply and demand, which summed up capitalist-class political economy, and production regulated by social welfare as represented by the working class.

 

  And therefore the Ten-Hour Bill was not only a great practical success, but also a victory of a principle; for the first time the political economy of the bourgeoisie was defeated by the political economy of the working class.

 

After a reference to the co-operative movement of the period, and the revival of the working-class movements in England, France, Germany and Italy and their efforts to reorganize politically, the address continues:

 

  They possess an element of success — numbers. But numbers are weighty in the scales only when they are united in an organization and led towards a conscious aim.

 

Past experience had shown that to ignore the fraternity which should exist between the workers of different countries and spur them on to stand together in all the struggles for their emancipation, always resulted in a general failure of all their unrelated efforts. This consideration had moved the meeting in St. Martin’s Hall to found the International Workingmen’s Association. The address concluded with the words: “Workers of the world, unite!”

 

The provisional rules, for which Marx was responsible, may be summed up as follows. The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. The struggle for the emancipation of the working class is not a struggle for the establishment of new class privileges, but the abolition of class rule altogether. The economic subjection of the worker to those who have appropriated the tools of labour, i.e. the source of life, results in servitude in all its forms: social misery, intellectual atrophy and political dependence. The economic emancipation of the working class is therefore the great aim for which all political movement must serve as a means.

 

The conference of the International held at The Hague in 1872 concluded with a public meeting at which Marx in the course of his speech said:

 

  One day the working class must hold political power in its hands in order to establish a new organization of labour. It must overthrow the old political system which maintains the old institutions in being, unless it wishes, like the old Christians, who despised and neglected such action, to renounce “the Kingdom of the World”.

 

We now know that the First International was bound to collapse, due to the conditions which gave rise to it and the conflicts which arose within it. Marx from this period concentrated on his literary work. He suffered several personal losses. In December 1881 his wife died, and this was followed by the death of his eldest daughter. Engels tells us he never recovered from these losses, and they aggravated a condition of poor health from which he suffered for some time. On the fourteenth of March 1883 he died quietly in his chair.

 

Bob Ambridge