The Congress of 1870 had to be abandoned owing to the outbreak of the Franco-German war. It had been brewing for some time, fostered on the one side by the expansionist policy of the Napoleonic regime, with its stock-jobbing supporters, and on the other side by the capitalist development of Germany, which was unifying the country under the domination of Prussia.
It was a difficult time for the International, with its mixed support, including many who were still moved by patriotic feelings. Its position was not improved by pronouncements upon what constituted an offensive and defensive war, largely inspired by a hatred of Bonapartism, which saw in Napoleon the principal trouble maker in Europe.
The General Council issued an address on July 23rd, 1870, whose sentiments were to be reflected in the attitude of the Labour movement in subsequent wars, notably in 1914 and 1939.
All governments who take part in wars allege that they are acting on the defensive, and workers on opposing sides have been induced to shed their blood upon battlefields on the specious claim that they have been fighting a war against aggression, though the latest manifestation, the Suez crisis, is put under the heading of a probable aggression! Marx, who wrote the July address, cannot be absolved from the evil consequences to which this attitude has led. The address contained these comments:
“If the German working class allow the present war to lose its strictly defensive character and to degenerate into a war against the French people, victory or defeat will prove alike disastrous.”
Once a war commences and workers are thrown into the conflict they have neither the information nor the power to do any limiting. When a war has started no one can successfully predict its result, except misery for the working-class of both victor and vanquished. The Address goes on to make a prophecy that vastly overestimates the influence of the more advanced members of the International and the level of understanding of the workers:
‘‘The principles of the International are, however, too widely spread and too firmly rooted amongst the German working class to apprehend such a sad consummation. The voices of the French workmen have re-echoed from Germany. A mass meeting of workmen, held at Brunswick on July 16th. expressed its full concurrence with the Paris manifesto, spurned the idea of national antagonism to France, and wound up its resolutions with these words : “We are enemies of all wars, but above all, of dynastic wars . . . With deep sorrow and grief we are forced to undergo a defensive war as an unavoidable evil; but we call at the same time, upon the whole German working-class to render the occurrence of such an immense social misfortune impossible by vindicating for the people themselves the power to decide on peace and war, and making themselves masters of their own destinies’. “
And the result of this support of a “defensive” war? The outcome of the war was the defeat of France; the establishment of the Commune of Paris in 1871, and the smashing up of working-class aspirations in France for many years; the building up of the German Empire, and the inauguration of the anti-Socialist laws that attempted to put the Socialist movement in Germany entirely out of the picture: the withdrawal of the English trade unions from the International; finally an all round stepping up of the persecution of the international and its members, on the ground that it was responsible for the Paris Commune. In fact, however, the International, as an organisation, had little to do with the Paris Commune, although some of its members played a considerable part in it.
A second Address was issued on September 9th, 1870, also written by Marx. This called attention to the fact that the German Government had now changed from the defensive to the offensive and was demanding the cession of territory, Alsace and Lorraine. This Address was an excellent summing-up of the developments and of the awakened imperialist hunger of the German capitalists, as well as its inevitable consequences, future wars of greater intensity. There was also a more realistic appreciation of what happens once the fervour of war is aroused, as the following quotation emphasises:
“The German working-class have resolutely supported the war, which it is not in their power to prevent, as a war for German Independence and the liberation of France and Europe from that pestilental incubus, the Second Empire. It was the German workmen who, together with the rural labourers, furnished the sinews and muscles of heroic hosts, leaving behind their half-starved families. Decimated by the battles abroad, they will be once more decimated by misery at home. In their turn they are now coming forward to ask for ‘guarantees,—guarantees that their immense sacrifices have not been brought in vain, that they have conquered liberty, that the victory over the imperialist armies will not, as in 1815, be turned into the defeat of the German people; . . .
Unfortunately, we cannot feel sanguine of their immediate success. If the French workmen amidst peace failed to stop the aggressor, are the German workmen more likely to stop the victor amidst the clangour of arms? ”
That last paragraph is strikingly different from the views expressed in the first Address.
The International itself was divided over the attitude expressed in the first Address. Liebkneckt and Bebel were opposed to war and, in the North German Reichstag they refrained from voting in favour of war. After the fall of the French Empire the Brunswick Committee, of which they were members, and other sections of the International took a stand against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, and were prosecuted by the German Government. Leibkneckt and Bebel were tried in March, 1872, on a charge of high treason and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in a fortress. There was also a manifesto from Swiss sections of the International calling upon the workers to take up arms in defence of the French Republic against Germany, which, it claimed, now represented despotism and reaction. This manifesto emanated from the Anarchists.
After the fall of the Paris Commune the International exerted itself to find asylum for its refugees, and assisted them in every way that was possible. This was made more difficult by the quarrels and mutual recriminations of the refugees themselves.
The bulk of the work of the International during the war had fallen upon the shoulders of Marx. After the fall of the Commune his defence of it appeared under me title of The Civil War in France, which has become one of the Socialist classics.
Although there was no Congress in 1870 nor 1871, a private conference was held in London in September, 1871, under the shadow produced by the Commune. Only 23 delegates attended, nine of whom came from the Continent.
The split between the groups in Switzerland, one centred in Geneva and the other (Anarchist) centred in the Juras, had widened and become a pressing problem that needed immediate attention. In order to check the intrigues of the Bakounin group the General Council asked for more power. The Conference declared that whatever methods of organisation sections of the International had to adopt in countries where it could not be regularly organised, there must be no secret societies. It also resolved to accept adhesions from women’s unions. While reasserting the position previously laid down on the necessity of political action, the Conference declared that the working-class must keep free from all political parties connected with the ruling class, and constitute its own political party to bring about the social revolution.
It was also proposed that a special federal committee be set up in England to deal with trade unions, and local efforts were urged in industries where strikes occurred rather than leaving it to the General Council to institute action.
In 1872 the Anarchists worked hard to overthrow the authority of the General Council, the Jura section tried unsuccessfully to get control of the sections in Switzerland and Belgium. The Alliance (Anarchist), which was supposed to have been dissolved, was active in Italy and Spain. Lafargue sent reports from Madrid that attempts were being made by members of the Alliance to get control of the Madrid Federation of the International. These subversive activities determined Marx to attend the Hague Congress of 1872 and deal the Bakouninists a mortal blow. Bakounin was also to be at the Congress, but he did not turn up.
The Hague Congress had a very wide international representation. According to Lessner (who was a delegate), there were seventy-two delegates present. Sections were represented from the following countries: Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, England, the United States, Austria, Hungary, Australia, and Ireland.
A report covering the previous three years was submitted, and then the Congress got down to the real business, the position of the General Council. A resolution was moved giving the General Council power to suspend any union, section or federation until the next Congress. After a vigorous discussion, in which an amendment was moved that no section could be suspended without the consent of its federation, the resolution was carried by thirty-six votes to six, with fifteen abstaining. Then Engels, who was present as a delegate, dumbfounded the delegates by moving that the seat of the General Council be transferred from London to New York. In spite of heated argument, this resolution was carried by twenty-six to twenty-three; with nine abstentions.
This was the vote that practically put an end to the existence of the International, for although it struggled on for a time in the United States, it gradually faded away.
Before the Hague Congress ended Marx had the satisfaction of seeing the Anarchists removed from the organisation. Bakunin, Guillaume, and others were expelled; the Geneva federation was suspended, and it was agreed to publish the documents relating to the Alliance. Subsequently the Anarchists in Europe met at congresses of their own for a few years, claiming that they were the legitimate International Working Men’s Association.