History of the First International 1/3

An attempt to form a Communist Party in 1847 failed partly on account of the defeat of working class aspirations during the European uprisings of 1848, shortly after the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Just over 20 years later, when working class militancy was reviving, another attempt was made. Though this one was wider and stronger in numbers, it was weaker in outlook and attracted support from groups which were not only antagonistic to each other but also had no real interest in Socialism—which was the fundamental concern of the Marxian founders of the new organisation. This organisation was the International Working Men’s Association, subsequently known as the First International.

The First International was formed in 1864. Throughout its career of about ten years it suffered from numerous handicaps, the most important of which was the immaturity of the workers political understanding at the time.

It had incompetent secretaries and badly written minutes; it was hampered by government persecution, including the seizing of important documents and the circulation of forged ones.

The ideas upon which the International was built were not new; many advanced workers were dissatisfied with their oppressive conditions and were groping for a way out. The breaking of strikes by the importation of workers from outside the country involved was one of the principal spurs to urge on the building up of an international organisation of workers.

Arising out of protest meetings relating to the suppression of a Polish Nationalist revolt, which were attended by workers from different countries, a meeting was held in September, 1864, in St. Martin’s Hall, near Covent Garden. At this meeting a proposal to form an international association of workers was greeted with enthusiasm by French, German and English delegates. A proposal to form a Central Committee, with its seat in London, was carried, and a Provisional Committee was appointed to work out the details of the Association. Marx, who had been invited to attend the meeting, was nominated to the Provisional Committee and was subsequently a member of the Central Council—later the General Council.

The Provisional Committee consisted of Trade Union leaders, Owenites, Chartists, Nationalists, Proudhonists, and old members of the Communist League. The Provisional Committee appointed a sub-committee to prepare an address and draft rules. A number of addresses and drafts of rules were prepared and rejected. Finally Marx submitted an address and rules that after slight amendment, were accepted.

The address contained a vivid picture of industrial conditions in England at the time and statements that are as pertinent now as when they were written nearly 90 years ago. For instance:

  “In all countries of Europe it has now become a truth demonstrable to every unprejudiced mind, and only denied by those whose interest it is to hedge other people in a fool’s paradise, that no improvement of machinery, no appliance of science to production, no contrivances of communication, no new colonies, no emigration, no opening of markets, no free trade, nor all of these things put together, will do away with the miseries of the industrious masses; but that, on the present false base, every fresh development of the productive powers of labour must tend to deepen social contrasts and point social antagonisms.

Yet the lords of land and the lords Of capital will always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economical monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labourTo conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes.”

On the whole, however, the address did not come up to the standard of the Communist Manifesto. This was mainly due to the necessity of producing something that would meet with the approval of those who founded the International. As Marx put it, in a letter to Engels:

  “It was very difficult to frame the theory so that our view should appear in a form acceptable from the present standpoint of the workers. It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old boldness of speech” 

There was little in the address that the average reformer would object to, and much that could be, and has been, misinterpreted. It contained weaknesses that brought trouble and disunion later.

Although the rules gave the Central Council an inordinate amount of power, the first five paragraphs of the preamble to the rules contain some of the best material of all. They were as follows:


“That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties and the abolition of all class rule;

“That the economical subjection of the man of labour to the monopolisers of the means of labour; that is, the sources of life, lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms, of all social misery, mental degradation and political dependence;

“That the economical emancipation of the working classes is, therefore, the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means;

“That all efforts aiming at that great end have hitherto failed from the want of solidarity between the manifold divisions of labour in each country, and from the absence of a fraternal bond of union between the working classes of different countries.

“That the emancipation of labour is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists, and depending for its solution on the concurrence, practical and theoretical, of the most advanced countries.”

Apart from the reference to “equal rights and duties” the above is a fair statement of the position, but few of those who signed it and joined the Association really understood it. All that most of them got out of it was an expression of the general feelings in the air at the time: condemnation of existing evils and the barriers to national independence; sympathy with the co-operative movement and the glorification of the working man as a person deserving consideration.

At the beginning the International was poorly provided with funds; there was no fixed subscription, each group being left to make what voluntary subscriptions it thought fit.

Adhesions to the International were not made nationally, but by isolated groups; such as a trade union, a political party, or a group of some kind organised for some particular object In the course of time groups in different countries federated and formed their own central councils the Central Council in London taking the name of General Council as the supreme authority. These different Central Councils had a great deal of autonomy, and were at times at loggerheads with each other.

At first adhesions to the International were slow, coming mainly from England. Later it made considerable progress in Switzerland; then it gained the adherence of Belgian and French trade unions and representatives of Spain and the United States were elected to the General Council. Whilst working to gain support the General Council took an active part in strikes and demonstrations, and sent out addresses on various occasions. It also took part in the Reform agitation in England in 1865, demanding Universal Suffrage.

Arrangements had been made to hold the first Congress in Brussels in 1865, but the project had to be abandoned owing to Governmental prohibition. Instead of the Congress an informal conference was held in London to discuss a variety of subjects, amongst which was “The Muscovite danger to Europe and the re-establishment of a free and united Poland.” Some of the subjects for discussion reflected the immaturity of the understanding of the delegates. There was a small delegation from Switzerland, France and Belgium; the rest were English delegates or foreigners resident in London.

The informal conference was really only a preparation for the Congress that was to be held the following year at Geneva, and the same subjects came up for discussion again at Geneva.

As the International progressed on the Continent the German speaking portion of Switzerland became the organising centre for Germany and Austria, where political combination was prohibited, under the Genevese Central Committee. The French-Swiss section in Geneva became the organising centre for the Jura region and extensive portions of France. This latter section soon became a storm centre, the principal scene of the activities of the Anarchists and, eventually, to a great extent the tool of Bakunin. Italy began to show increasing interest but the activities of the anarchists there and the nationalist movement complicated the situation.