Terrell Carver, Political Studies Review

Review of Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later

The title of this landmark volume refers to the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), formally founded in London in 1864, and known in more recent times simply as ‘The International’ or ‘First International’.

This crucial period – to the late 1870s – in the development of global politics has somewhat faded from view, or where visible, has been remembered in a narrow and misleading way. Marcello Musto’s lengthy (68 pp.) and meticulously scholarly Introduction to a further 80 documents – many accessibly reproduced and translated into English for the first time – sets the record straight. The history of the IWMA is not just an episode in the life of Karl Marx, nor are its major texts simply minor adjuncts to his works.

The IWMA had a life of its own, and a lively one at that. Musto is very even-handed in his treatment of trades unionists and reformers, mutualists and utopians and anarchists and autonomists. The documents are selected and organised around quite practical themes, show-casing what are often contradictory views, about, for example, the political utility of violence and strikes, a bewildering variety of economic principles and proposals, education and welfare policies in draft, the ‘woman question’, as well as war, empire and international relations generally. Indeed, given its structure of national representative delegations and congressional decision-making (and horse-trading in the General Council), the International mixed nationalistic rivalries with cross-cultural communication and inter-textual idea-swapping. Hardly any country on the planet permitted such freedom of thought and radical theorising. It is amazing the delegates and officers got away with it.

Musto’s Introduction and the documents themselves show us not so much how Marx fitted in – no one could ‘fit in’ to such a mélange and maelstrom – but how he worked politically to get it rolling, keep it going and – opinions differ of course – how he determined that it was past its ‘sell-by’. Musto carefully shows that no one individual could dominate it, kill it or save it, and he takes care to discuss the successor organisations that Marx-based accounts exclude or dismiss. The political message of the volume is to provoke a re-examination of the IWMA as a way of revitalising current mass, popular movements of the left. The focus of the International – on working people – and its spirited commitment to setting down guidelines, recommendations, principles and policies amid on-going debates holds up a mirror – not to Marx – but to political parties and movements of the present.

Published in:

Political Studies Review

Date Published

1 January, 2016


Terrell Carver