Socialist Worker

The First International was forged in struggle

In the first of a new series Dan Swain looks at how socialists have organised for change globally

Issue No. 2187

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez has called for the formation of a Fifth International to unite socialists around the world.

The previous internationals were places of debate and action, established to strengthen the international socialist movement.

We can learn an enormous amount by studying them.

On 28 September 1864, delegations of workers from different countries met in London to form the International Working Men’s Association. This was later known as the First International.

It was an historic moment uniting working people in a genuinely international organisation.

Uprisings in Poland against the Russian empire provided the spark for its formation.

British workers issued a call to workers in Paris to deliver joint solidarity.

A delegation from France travelled to London. By the time the first meeting was convened large numbers of Polish, German and Italian workers were also present.

The first few years of the international saw some impressive successes.

It won solidarity from British workers for a strike of bronze workers in Paris, which went on to victory.

It was also crucial to defeating attempts by bosses to use scab labour to break the London tailors’ strike in 1866 and the Geneva building workers’ strike in 1868.

Arguments for international solidarity had a strong resonance with workers across Europe.

In 1869 mine owners in Belgium unleashed an attack on working conditions. Workers and their families rose up and were met with vicious repression.

Belgian troops killed or wounded many workers.

The First International organised solidarity meetings and provided legal representation for the arrested miners.

They were acquitted, increasing support for the International.

It was a place of intense debates.

Marx and his supporters were not the only voices. Anarchists, represented mainly by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon from France and the Russian Mikhail Bakunin were one strand.

Utopian Socialism was another. Utopians saw the route to socialism through enlightenment and education.

Robert Owen, one of its key proponents, had established co-operatives and ideal working communities to show how work and society could be organised differently.

Marx argued that while these were good examples, they would not lead to socialism—building isolated communities could never be enough.

“To conquer political power has... become the great duty of the working classes”, he said in his first address to the International.

Many of Marx’s most important political arguments were made in debates with these trends.

The International’s biggest challenge was the Paris Commune in 1871.

War had broken out between France and Prussia. The defeat of France led to the collapse of the government and the declaration of a new republic.

Paris Commune

In Paris workers rose up and declared their own government under the Commune. Marx offered his full support, and his analysis of it is among his most important writings.

His The Civil War in France offers a powerful defence of the Commune and a stark description how far the ruling class would go to crush a revolution.

These events saw socialism condemned internationally, and Marx was labelled the “Red Doctor” by the press.

There was debate within the International itself. Faced with a revolutionary moment, the divisions in the International became increasingly important.

Anarchists and socialists drew very different conclusions.

The English trade unions left the International because of its support for the Commune and the British representatives resigned from its general council.

They argued that change should come through parliament and trade union activity.

With the loss of the British section the divisions between Marx and the anarchists became more intractable.

It led to the eventual dissolution of the International in 1872.

While the International had brought together workers across Europe, the division between reformists and revolutionaries was too much.

It remains a crucial question in debates about building international organisations in the future.


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