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Internationalism of the Labour Movement

“Whatever national differences divide Poles, Russians, Prussians, Hungarians, and Italians, these national differences have not prevented the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian despots uniting together to maintain their tyranny; why, then, cannot countries unite for obtainment of their liberty? The cause of the people in all countries is the same—the cause of Labour, enslaved, and plundered…In each country the tyranny of the few and the slavery of the many are variously developed, but the principle in all is the same. In all countries the men who grow the wheat live on potatoes. The men who rear the cattle do not taste flesh-food. The men who cultivate the vine have only the dregs of its noble juice. The men who make clothing are in rags. The men who build the houses live in hovels. The men who create every necessary comfort and luxury are steeped in misery. Working men of all nations, are not your grievances your wrongs, the same? Is not your good cause, then the same also? We may differ as to the means, or different circumstances may render different means necessary but the great end—the veritable emancipation of the human race—must be the one end and aim of all.” – George Julian Harney, Chartist, 1846

Thus, two years before the publication of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, the idea of a union of the working class of all lands had already been clearly articulated. Socialism is international, just like capitalism. But whereas the internationalism of the bourgeoisie is continually frustrated by the mutual competition of national capitalism, the internationalism of the proletariat is nourished and perpetually strengthened by the active solidarity of the interests of all the workers, regardless of their dwelling-place or nationality. The situation of the workers is identical in its essential features throughout all capitalist countries.

While the interests of the employers of different lands conflict one with another, the interests of workers coincide. The working class come to realise this in the course of its daily struggles. For example, in their attempts to secure higher wages, a reduction of hours, and other measures for the protection of labour, the workers continually encounter obstacles, which are brought into existence by the competition between the capitalists of various nations. An increase in wages or a reduction of the working day in any particular country is rendered difficult or almost impossible by the competition of other countries in which these reforms have not yet been achieved.

Furthermore, during strikes entered into by the workers for the improvement of their condition, the capitalists of the more advanced countries have recourse to the importation of workers from lands where the standard of life is lower. All these things have convinced the workers of the solidarity of their interests and of the necessity for joining forces in the struggle for the improvement of their condition. The periodic, recurring clashes of war imposes the crushing burden of armament costs; conscription and removal of liberties. All these things arouse among people a protest which is barely conscious at first but which grows increasingly conscious, a protest against war, a struggle against militarism, in the name of the international solidarity of the workers.

But more importantly, in view of the indissoluble economic and political ties uniting the various capitalist countries, the social revolution cannot count upon success unless at the outset it involves, if not all, then at least the leading capitalist lands. For this reason, from the moment when the workers begin to become aware that their complete emancipation is unthinkable without the socialist reconstruction of contemporary capitalist society, they take as their watchword the union of the workers of the whole world in a common struggle for emancipation. From that moment the instinctive internationalism of the worker is transformed into a conscious internationalism (understood in the sense of the idea of the universal solidarity and organisation of mankind).

This ‘internationalism’ is the natural consequence of the great process of assimilation which is taking place throughout the world. Nations are becoming more and more like each other, and their mutual relations more and more close. The same economic problems, the same commercial and industrial crises, the same class antagonisms, the same struggles between employers and employees, arise in all countries, regardless of their form of government. The factors of the modern world economy are global, mobile capital above all. This cosmopolitan capital, knowing no ties of country, holds sway over labour in accordance with almost identical rules in almost every land. How can we not expect any other result than that labour should exhibit everywhere an identical reaction?

There is, however, something else quite special about the internationalism of the labour movement. It does not appeal to the intellect alone; it appeals also to the heart. Socialists become enthusiastic about it because it stands for a noble idea, for the idea of the brotherhood of man, poetically expressed by Robert Burns:

It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world, o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

And expressed in song by the workers anthem, The International:

So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.

Socialism is anti-nationalism, opposed to everything which comes under the heading of chauvinism, jingoism, and militarism – opposition to all national expansion, to all national pride, to every attempt to cause animosity between peoples, to any kind of colonialism and imperialism. Workers have the community of interests with proletarians of all lands, where often arises the need for joint activities and for unification. We have a unity of economic relationships, and this presupposes a unity of organisation. The work of production will then be in the hands of the whole community, a world-wide co-operative system. Socialism desires to substitute a class-free society, one in which there will be no need to maintain by force the rule of the one over the many.

The society of Fraternal Democrats was formed in London in 1844, by European political refugees and some Chartists. Six secretaries were appointed – English, German, French, Slav, Scandinavian, and Swiss. In December 1847, The Fraternal Democrats proclaimed:

“That the earth with all its natural productions is the common property of all; we therefore denounce all infractions of this evidently just and natural law, as robbery and usurpation. We declare that the present state of society, which permits idlers and schemers to monopolise the fruits of the earth and the productions of industry, and compels the working classes to labour for inadequate rewards, and even condemns them to social slavery, destitution, and degradation, is essentially unjust.”

Next came a declaration of internationalism:

“Convinced that national prejudices have been, in all ages, taken advantage of by the people’s oppressors to set them tearing the throats of each other, when they should have been working together for their common good, this society repudiates the term ‘Foreigner,’ no matter by, or to whom applied. Our moral creed is to receive our fellow men, without regard to ‘country,’ as members of one family, the human race; and citizens of one commonwealth – the world.”

As was the Communist League of Marx, it was not a party of action but a society of propaganda and agitation. It organised meetings and demonstrations to commemorate revolutionary events. They proclaimed the international solidarity of the workers as an essential preliminary to the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. Harney said:

“The people are beginning to understand that foreign as well as domestic questions do affect them; that a blow struck at Liberty on the Tagus is an injury to the friends of Freedom on the Thames; that the success of Republicanism in France would be the doom of Tyranny in every other land; and the triumph of England’s democratic Charter would be the salvation of the millions throughout Europe.” (“The Northern Star,” June 19, 1847.)

In another speech Harney explained:

“But let the working men of Europe advance together and strike for their rights at one and the same time, and it will be seen – that every tyrannical government and usurping class will have enough to do at home without attempting to assist other oppressors.” (“The Northern Star,” February 26, 1848.)

The idea of the international solidarity of the proletariat did not perish when the Fraternal Democrats ceased to exist. In 1864 the International Workingmen’s Association (or First International) emerged, founded to become a centre for communication and co-operation, affiliating workers organisations in different countries and aiming at the protection, advancement, and emancipation of the working classes. The International was created to promote the unity of the workers.

As Marx said in his famous address:

“Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.”

He concluded with the same exhortation as in the Communist Manifesto:

“Proletarians of all countries, unite!”

Sourced from G. M. Stekloff’s History of The First International, 1928