August H. Nimtz, Science & Society

Review of Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later

The International Workingmen’s Association, or First International, was the jewel in the crown of Marx’s practice, declared Engels at his partner’s funeral in 1883. He planned to write an account about Marx’s role in the IWA but didn’t live long enough to do so.

With Marx’s input, a history of the organization was published in 1868, but only about half way into its existence: Wilhelm Eichoff’s The International Working Men’s Association: Its Establishment, Organisation, Political and Social Activity, and Growth. Not until the second half of the next century would comprehensive histories of the IWA be written. Henry Collins and Chimen Abramsky’s Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement: Years of the First International, published in 1965, remains, at least in English, the most authoritative. Marcello Musto’s Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later is the most recent contribution to that conversation.

Why the need now for another history of the IWA? “The world of labor,” Musto says in the Preface,

has suffered an epochal defeat. The barbarism against which it [the IWA] fought and won important victories has returned to become the reality of our times. . . . The task today, then, is to build again on the ruins, and direct familiarity with the original theorizations of the workers’ movement may help significantly to reverse the trend.

Musto, therefore, is no disengaged chronicler of the past. The latest hand that capital has dealt to workers in Greece, for example, gives him added rationale and urgency for such a project.

Following his 68-page “Introduction,” an overview of the IWA, Musto has appended 230 pages of “Resolutions, Interventions, Documents” that informed the organization’s work, many of which are usefully referred to in the Introduction. The topics are: “Inaugural Address,” “Political Program,” “Labor,” “Trade Union and Strike,” “Cooperative Movement and Credit,” “On Inheritance,” “Collective Ownership and the State,” “Education,” “The Commune of Paris,” “Internationalism and Opposition to War,” “The Irish Question,” “the United States,” and “Political Organization.” Because Marx was so influential in the International his contributions (sometimes in collaboration with Engels) constitute the bulk of these materials and, therefore, can be found in the Marx–Engels Collected Works. What makes Musto’s volume unique in recounting the history of the IWA is the inclusion of writings of lesser-known figures who participated to varying degrees in the International, such as Mikhail Bakunin, César De Paepe, Eugene Dupont, Johann Georg Eccarius, and others. Marx and Engels authored just less than half of the 80 documents included. And among the non–Marx/Engels contributions are to be found a number of precious gems, such as two in the “Labor” section on women’s equality. In total, they constitute a valuable addendum to the MECW.

Because Musto’s “Introduction” is likely to be exactly that for a new generation of those interested in the Marx–Engels project, a couple of cautions are in order. He correctly acknowledges Marx’s indispensable role in what the IWA was able to accomplish. Marx, as Eccarius later noted, was “the right man in the right place.” But that poses a question. Why could a relatively unknown German émigré living in London come so soon to lead the international organization birthed in that city in September, 1864? Missing in Musto’s otherwise comprehensive essay — which provides, among other valuable facts, useful data on IWA membership and activities — is the relevant background to answer that question. Yes, Marx’s “political talents” were determinant but not sufficient. A page or at least a few paragraphs about his prior praxis — in collaboration with Engels — is sorely needed. Decisive in Marx’s quick ascent in becoming the de facto leader of the IWA was the combination of both prior theoretical and practical work. The “Marx party,” as it had come to be known by friend and foe alike — despite having been in semi-hibernation following the defeat of the European Revolutions of 1848–1849, its baptismal fire — was in a unique position to do what no other political tendency could do. The London meeting that initiated the IWA registered, Marx argued, the revival of the international worker’s movement after a decade-long lull. And, most decisive, he had an informal organization/network in place that made it possible for him to act on that vision.

Also missing in Musto’s “Introduction” is the thread that ran from Marx’s Inaugural Address in 1864 to the main achievement of the Hague Congress in 1872 (effectively, the last IWA plenary meeting): the fight for independent working-class political action. For Marx and Engels the central lesson of Europe’s Spring of 1848–1849 was that only the working class could free itself from capital, and to do so required having its own political party with its own program. To Musto’s credit, he includes the relevant documents and interventions for that campaign, especially those that contested the abstentionist political course of the followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin. But for readers new to Marx and Engels’ politics a distillation of that fight would be of considerable help in digesting the documents. Part of the problem is Musto’s mistaken claim about Marx’s employment of the word “party.” He “used the term,” we are told, “in a vague manner” that “corresponds to the concept of class.” More accurately, “party” had different meanings for Marx and Engels prior to the establishment of the IWA (another reason why some treatment of their prior activities is needed). But by the time the IWA came to be there is no doubt, as Musto seems to recognize, about what they meant by working-class political parties. The German workers’ movement provided the prototype in 1869. Had Musto devoted some space listing not just the subsequent Internationals after the demise of the IWA but also the many working-class political parties that appeared in the next two decades, the reader could see that the seeds Marx and Engels planted at The Hague eventually took root and bore fruit. (How those parties later comported themselves is another story.)

Despite the limitations of Musto’s “Introduction,” his collection of IWA documents is most valuable and has currency for today’s fighters (his failure to make the connections notwithstanding). The excerpts, for example, from the debate that Marx had with George Weston, a leading advocate of cooperativism and a member of the General Council of the IWA, on how wages and prices are determined — what would later be published as Value, Price and Profit — provides essential ammunition for those defending a minimum wage against critics who argue that it will inevitably lead to inflation. Or, Marx’s advice on trade unions, specifically, “their future” — “They must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction” — a recommendation that rings all so true today. Lastly, the documents that speak to independent working-class political action are just what workers not only in Greece but elsewhere desperately need if they are to cease being the sacrificial lambs on the altars of capital’s ever insistent austerity drive.

Published in:

Science & Society

Date Published

1 January, 2017


August H. Nimtz