Babak Amini, Rethinking Marxism. A journal of economics, culture and society

Review of Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later

Realistic portrayal of an organization as diverse as the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) which has been historically and ideologically depicted mainly from the vantage point of a single individual, namely, Karl Marx (and sometimes alongside the ghostly presence of the anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin), is the task undertaken in this thematized anthology by Marcello Musto.

The central aim of the book is to redistribute the credit for the political significance of the IWMA to the ordinary workers and labour activists who composed the body of this extraordinary organization.

The book brings together an incredible collection of documents, which includes not only documents produced by the General Council (GC) but also reports of working commissions and local sections, with 33 out of 80 documents which have never been translated into English. It includes all the well-known documents such as The Inaugural Address or On the Paris Commune, but also lesser known and unknown documents, written by more than 30 different authors, on incredibly diverse issues.

The anthology is accompanied by a substantial introduction which lays out the political history of the IWMA. It succeeds in debunking some of the most widely held myths about the International, such as the wild overestimation of its membership or the false depiction of Marx as its founder by analyzing and contextualizing its complex organizational landscape. Nonetheless, Marx is given his due credit for giving cohesion to a dramatically divergent currents within the International and achieving a “non-exclusionary, yet firmly class-based, political program that won it a mass character beyond all sectarianism” (5).

The introduction describes the evolution of the International simultaneously on two multi-stage but nonparallel fronts, namely, in terms of its organization (foundation 1864-66, expansion 1866-70, revolutionary surge and repression 1871-72, and split 1872-77), and in terms of its theoretical development (foundational 1864-65, collectivist/mutualist struggle 1866-69, centralist/autonomist clashes 1870-77).

Musto carefully traces the theoretical topology of various factions within the International and how certain tendencies were weakened or strengthened, both as a result of internal discussions and politics, and external circumstances. In early years of the International, inherently reformist British unionists, who never intended to call the legitimacy of capitalism into question, and Prodhounian mutualists, who resolutely opposed any political engagement or strike as means of struggle, were the dominant forces in the composition of the IWMA. Musto demonstrates how this changed in a few years to the point where in 1868, through the resilient leadership of Marx and the changing economic and political reality, mutualists ceased to be a significant force in the International. This was when growing influence of the anarchist tendency led by Bakunin provided a new battle ground for Marx. However, the outbreak of Franco-Prussian war of 1870, later the Paris Commune in March of 1871 interrupted the meetings of the International and gave it a new direction. Musto argues that the events in France showed that an anti-capitalist revolution was possible but “in order to achieve this, the workers would have to create durable and well-organized forms of political association” (35). Hence, the International was led (by Marx, the majority of the GC, and the Blanquists) to pursue the establishment of working class political party as an essential element in workers’ struggle against capitalism. The anarchists vehemently opposed this new agenda but they were sidelined which eminently led to the transfer of the GC to New York, as proposed by Engels in the Hague Congress.

The introduction closes with a handy list of the congresses and conferences and with a membership table, laboriously produced for the first time in the historiography of the IWMA, which shows the approximate number of members, at the peak years in Europe and the United States.

The anthology presents us with a meticulously chosen documents that stand for the legacy of the International. The documents are organized based on themes most of which are relevant to the contemporary labour movements. The documents are chronologically ordered (with the curious exceptions of documents 24 and 52) to reflect the historical evolution and internal struggles of the International in terms of the topics and content of discussions. Furthermore, the footnotes at the beginning of each document provide small biographical notes about each of the authors, the congress or conference in which each document appeared, and where the full version can be found.

This review cannot do justice to the wealth of ideas expressed in these documents which deal with issues such as reduction of working hours, women’s emancipation and equality, international trades union, cooperative movement as a possible path to the emancipation of the working class, state ownership of property vs. a stateless society, public education, nationalism within labour movement, etc. Most of these discussions sound refreshingly yet uncomfortably relevance; refreshing because these documents give a sense of collective heritage and historical continuity of labour struggle; uncomfortable precisely because we see a reoccurring continuity in the unresolved labour issues which we still grapple with to this day.

This book commemorates the 150th anniversary of the IWMA at a time when not only global capitalism is in a deep crisis but also the left is struggling to regain its broad popular support and political power. The weakening of the left has been induced and amplified not only by systematic subversion of these institutions by the ruling class but also by the historic failures of some of the so-called socialist experiments of the twentieth century, as budded in the Second and Third International. Musto holds the IWMA as an example to argue that the new international socialist movement that can overcome the present challenges, “must be plural and it must be anticapitalist” (66). He does this not through a romanticization of the First International, but a courageous demystification of its history. It is likely that this book will soon become an indispensable source not only for those who want to study the International historically and evaluate its legacies, but also for labour activists and workers who wrestle with similar issues that members of IWMA contended.

Published in:

Rethinking Marxism. A journal of economics, culture and society

Date Published

28 June, 2016


Babak Amini