The foundation of the First International is forever doomed to have its anniversaries overshadowed by falling in the same years as the world commemorates the war that began in 1914.
The latter event was in its essence the negation of the International born 50 years earlier, which had proclaimed that international rule will be peace because its national ruler will everywhere be the same “Labour.”
This bloody negation, in due Hegelian turn, produced its own antithesis in the formation of the Third International, carrying forward the work of the First at a higher level.
The First International is encrusted by its own share of myths. It was not initiated by Karl Marx who, with a sharp eye for the revolutionary main chance, seized ideological leadership over an organisation already being brought into being by, of all people, British trade unionists. Nor, of course, did the International set up or control the Paris Commune of 1871, the stick with which it was beaten by contemporary reaction. Indeed, the International’s supporters in France played a secondary role in the Commune, which Marx himself had counselled against establishing.
The idea that the International collapsed because of divisions between the followers of Marx and the supporters of the anarchist Bakunin is also part-myth, as Marcello Musto’s interesting introduction to this collection makes clear. For sure the Bakunin-inspired split, on the principles of absolute opposition to any form of authority in the International and to political action properly understood, did not help.
But the fact is that the International had already outlived its purpose. The growth of nationally rooted labour movements would have made the structures of leadership developed by the International at a lower level of the movement’s development impossible to sustain in any event.
The First International bridged the period between Chartism and the revolutions of 1848 across Europe on the one side, marking the first emergence of the working class as an independent political actor and the mass labour movements which took root in national soil in most European countries in the last quarter of the 19th century on the other.
It raised the banner of working-class solidarity in Europe, took its stand against war and campaigned among the workers in support of the abolition of slavery in the US civil war.
It is a distinguished record, capped by its support for the Paris Commune as the world’s first proletarian revolution, notwithstanding the reservations mentioned above.
Musto’s collection of original documents are testimony to the scope of its activity. Thirty of the 80 are by Marx and Engels and may therefore be familiar, the rest by other leaders and activists in the International will be less so. They illuminate the beginnings of strategic thinking about the role of trade unions, address the national question in Ireland, explore the possibilities of co-operatives and examine the relationship of the state to socialism.
The International was, of course, a child of its time. Two women made an appearance as delegates at the International’s last congress, but not before, and its internationalism was bounded by Europe and North America. Uniting the emerging working class with the oppressed of the colonial world had to await not just the next International but the one after that.
The heterogeneity of the International comes through. As well as leaders of some of the embryonic trade unions in Britain, it brought together the mutualist followers of Proudhon, anarchists and, eventually, followers of the perennial and perennially unsuccessful insurrectionist Blanqui, among others. These were in addition to Marx’s own followers.
The extraordinary aspect was the ideological dominance Marx and Engels established over this assembly. The facility with which Marx emerged from his prolonged economic studies and writings to adapt his language to the exigencies of leadership in such a diverse body is a measure of his genius. As a result, it was Marx’s ideas on political economy, on political action and on internationalism which predominated a position won by argument, not assumed as of right.
This also raises the question of contemporary international working-class organisation and whether the reconstruction of proletarian internationalism as an actual factor in world politics will have to pass through something more like the First International — diverse, working towards unity through struggle and argument rather than presupposing ideological homogeneity from the outset.
At any event, in the words of the First International’s Inaugural Address, written by Marx and included in this valuable anthology, “to conquer political power has become the great duty of the working classes.”
In a world mired in economic crises and savage wars, that duty calls as much as ever. The alternative is another go-round of the imperialist wars which prosper because the ruler everywhere is not yet labour and the rulers we have instead cry crocodile tears over fields of poppies while storing up fresh slaughter.