The first congress of the International was held at Geneva in 1866, and it ran into difficulties at its opening. Individual members, mainly Blanquist, insisted on sitting as delegates and voting, although they only represented themselves. The London Conference had laid down that only official delegates were to be allowed to sit and vote. After some heated argument the Blanquists were ejected. They were so infuriated by this treatment that they afterwards became steadfast opponents of the International.
The delegation at the Congress was as follows: Twenty-five sections of the International were represented by forty-five delegates. There were also eleven co-operative societies represented by fifteen delegates—another instance of the peculiar and loose form in which the International operated. The French had by far the largest delegation, and Proudhonist views soon began to cloud the discussions.
One factor that intruded upon and influenced the discussions was the effect of an economic crisis which had brought a general stagnation in commerce and industry and was coupled with a bad harvest that made bread prices high.
The French delegates proposed a scheme for a worldwide co-operative society; they were opposed to strikes and to the limitation of the working day to eight hours on grounds that are worth quoting as an example of the weakness of Proudhonist objection to existing conditions:
“In the name of freedom of contract, it was improper for the International Assembly to interfere in the private relationship between employers and employed, except by giving advice when asked.” (quoted by Stekloff).
This amounted to a sweeping denial of the class struggle by people who had pledged their adherence to the principles and policy laid down in the inaugural address and the preamble to the rules—which were agreed to by the Congress.
A resolution was passed fixing the contributions of all members at 3d. per year. Fixing the contributions was easy, but collecting them was entirely different. Trifling though the amount was, money came in very tardily, and less than fifty pounds came into the funds during the whole of the following year; this in spite of the fact that the size and influence of the International grew rapidly.
On the whole the first Congress was little more than a sounding board for the various discordant voices. In the main, however, the attitude of the General Council was supported, which meant that the influence of Marx was paramount. The views expressed at the Congress, however, alarmed the French Government, which henceforth seized every document going through the post on which they could lay. their hands, including a report of the Congress.
The activities of the International now began to get into the press of different countries, sometimes with favourable notices, as there was always a hope that the International might be something that could be used with advantage in the struggle between capitalists.
The next Congress was at Lausanne in 1867, and was monopolised by the Proudhonists. A resolution relating to war was passed which, after beginning with a statement involving the abolition of Capitalism as the only method of abolishing war, contradicted it by stating that the International was prepared to “share in any activities in which the League of Peace and Freedom may engage in order to achieve the abolition of standing armies and the maintenance of peace.” Behind the objection to standing armies was an attempt to get round the obstacle they offered to attempts at successful insurrection; attempts that were never supported by the mass of the population, partly through fear, but mainly through lack of interest.
Another proposal at the Congress was that State railways, canals, mines and public services should be exploited, or administered, by workers’ associations whose members should give their services at cost price, though what price the latter was did not emerge.
There were many other proposals and resolutions, including one on simplified spelling and another on a moral code for all peoples in harmony with morality, justice and virtue!
The Proudhonists again expressed themselves against strikes without calling forth much opposition, and induced Congress to pass a resolution advising trade unions to invest their funds in co-operative production societies.
The discussions showed that the participants had not made much progress in practical knowledge, and that differences in outlook were being swamped by the influence of Proudhonism, although Marx, who was mainly taken up with his work on Capital at the time, still dominated the proceedings of the General Council.
Gradually a position was being reached in which the General Council was at loggerheads with a large part of the membership. It was this that gave Bakunin his opportunity when he entered the International in 1869 and promptly set out to fight the policy of Marx, with the object of getting control of the Association.
The Brussels Congress in 1868 was attended by 99 delegates, an indication of the growing influence of the International. The large delegation was no evidence of clarity in outlook; it simply forced to the front the fundamental differences in outlook of antagonistic sections. In spite of the efforts of the General Council, Proudhonistic influence still dominated, although at that Congress the International first declared openly for Communism; that is, Communism as the word used to be understood, and not the monstrosity that has come out of Russia.
Proposals were put forward recommending a strike against war; producers to gain possession of machines through the co-operative societies and the mutual credit system; and, also, the hoary old platitude that Justice should regulate the relations between national groups.
In September 1869 the Congress was held at Basle, and marked the first appearance of an American delegate. It also marked the beginning of the struggle with Bakunin (who had recently joined the Association) that finally broke up the International.
At this Congress Bakunin supported a resolution giving the General Council power to expel any section which acted in defiance of the principles of the International; and also a resolution in favour of the abolition of individual ownership of the soil. Both resolutions were carried.
A resolution was put forward to abolish the right of inheritance. Bakunin supported this on the ground that the right of inheritance had become the basis of the State and the Family. The Marxists replied that the laws of inheritance were not the cause, but the effect of the existing economical organisation. However, the resolution was carried, but it did not get the absolute majority (owing to a large body of abstentions) to make it a part of the policy of the Association.
Bakunin also opposed a resolution that involved working class participation in political action, on the ground that the capitalist state should be left to rot away and a workers’ state be built within it, to be set up on its ruins.
There was a discussion on trade unionism in which the supporters of Bakunin introduced the syndicalist idea that trade unions represented the social and political organisations of the future, in which groups of producers would own the means of production in each industry; the mines for the miners, the railways for the railwaymen, etc.
In spite of all the efforts of the Marxists, the Basle Congress was a sweeping victory for Bakunin, which shook the International to its basis. This Congress ended the constructive side of the International’s work; henceforth it became a battle ground for a bitter conflict between the Anarchists and the Marxists.
In the six years since its foundation the activities of the International had been considerable in many fields, and in the minds of the governments of the day it appeared to be more powerful than it really was. By 1870 it was recognised as a menace to the existing social order, and was treated as such. Members and groups were subjected to police surveillance and persecution; correspondence was opened and documents confiscated.