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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.