Karl Marx and the First International

Karl Marx and the First International

The launch of this issue of The Project coincides with international workers’ day. It is therefore appropriate to assess one of the formative experiences of working class internationalism. On September 28 1864 a public meeting in St Martin’s Hall in London brought together British, French and German workers to support Italian and Polish self-determination and discuss international working class cooperation. A German exile invited to attend only at the last minute, a certain Karl Marx, was on the platform but did not speak. Within weeks he was to have virtually single-handedly drafted the foundation documents of a new organisation, the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), which has gone down in history as the First International.

For the next eight years Marx was to play a pivotal role in the IWMA. He attended every meeting that he could of its General Council, was the author of all its principal documents from its inaugural address and provisional rules, through the papers produced by the GC for all its congresses, down to its 1871 analysis of the Paris Commune, ‘The Civil War in France’. And he involved himself in the minutiae of the organisation – even down to issuing membership cards. Engels was to write, “[to] describe Marx’s activity in the International is to write the history of the Association itself”.

1864 brought to an end a decade and a half in which Marx in the wake of the defeat of the 1848-9 revolutions had withdrawn from direct political entanglements. During that period with a small group of primarily German political activists –most notably Friedrich Engels – he formed what others and they themselves labelled the Marx party or the Marx-Engels party. They had devoted themselves to what they referred to as “swotting”, ie, theoretical research and political study. The intention was to assemble the intellectual weaponry necessary to shape the next working class upsurge.

Even before the St Martin’s Hall meeting Marx was convinced that a new political spring-tide was on the advance. The signs included the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861, the peasant uprising in Poland in 1863, the struggle against slavery in the United States, and the launch of Ferdinand Lassalle’s German Workers’ Association in May 1863 (whatever Marx and Engels’ reservations about Lassalle himself). Significantly, the British working class seemed to be on the move for the first time since the eclipse of the Chartists. The British trade union movement, in the form of the new model craft unions, was reviving. What most enthused Marx was the determination these new working class forces had shown in the campaign to prevent Britain aiding the confederacy in the US civil war.

Engels, based until 1870 in Manchester, was for a year or two highly sceptical of how politically useful the IWMA would prove to be. He predicted that the disparate forces it brought together – ranging from British Owenites, old Chartists and trade unionists to French and Belgian Proudhonists and the partisans of Italy’s not at all socialist Giuseppe Mazzini – would soon split. Marx explained that in contrast to his rejection of previous invitations to participate in political initiatives, “I accepted this time because it concerns a matter by means of which it is possible to have a significant influence”. The IWMA represented an opportunity to “recruit our party entirely anew”. At no time, though, did Marx act as though he was on a smash and grab recruitment exercise. His attitude towards the IWMA and his actions indicate that he quickly came to consider the IWMA to be his party.

Strong in deed, mild in manner

A century and a half later Marx’s role in the IWMA is from time to time referenced to justify attempts in our current era to build political organisations that are not explicitly revolutionary or Marxist. The logic of such arguments is generally flawed on three grounds: it misinterprets what Marx did in the IWMA, it ignores the way that Marx and Engels’ ideas evolved as a result of their engagement with the IWMA, and it sets up a concept of a Marxist party that bears a close resemblance to existing left sects but is one that Marx would not recognise.

Now, Marx did write to Engels after the General Council of the IWMA unanimously adopted his draft of the inaugural address: “It will take time before the revival of the movement allows the old boldness of language to be used. We must be fortier in re, suaviter in modo [strong in deed, mild in manner].” The “mild in manner” is grist to the mill of those who see Marx as accommodating to reformism. They overlook the counsel to be “strong in deed”.

An important point to appreciate is that from our perspective the IWMA – at least in its origins – was a pretty strange beast. Subsequent socialist, communist and Trotskyist internationals brought together political parties. This first incarnation of working class internationalism was in part a trade union international. But it included Owenites and mutualist (early anarchist) followers of Proudhon (who was to die in January 1865) who rejected trade unionism and strikes. To the extent that it incorporated putative political parties, the same mutualists who opposed industrial struggle also rejected engaging with the political arena. They sought to build an alternative society from within capitalism by promoting cooperatives and mutual credit (with state support if possible).

Hardly an ideal starting point, but it is what the 1860s threw up. It was the working class character of these forces that appeared promising to Marx. If the exercise of diplomacy (and a degree of caution) could hold them together for the time being, then that was a sacrifice worth making.

Yet at no time in his work with the IWMA did Marx compromise fundamental political principles. The need to maintain the independence of the working class was the most important conclusion Marx and Engels reached about the course of the 1848-49 revolutions [1]. Within the IWMA Marx took great pains to fight off attempted boardings of the organisation by opportunist members of the middle class. Starting in the first few weeks by blocking the application of Louis Blanc, a veteran of Paris 1848, who had failed that revolutionary test.

Take the Inaugural Address [2]. Marx’s literary skill lay in taking account of the concerns of the various groups within the IWMA while infusing the statement with a vision of working class emancipation that was revolutionary in content. The Ten Hour Act of 1847 (the reduction of the hours of work was a key demand of trade unionists) represented a victory for the “political economy of the working class” which envisaged “social production controlled by social foresight” (a definition of socialism). Factory cooperatives (beloved of Owenites and mutualists alike) had shown that production “may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands”, but “[t]o save the industrious masses, co-operative labour ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means” (in other words, only socialist production could develop the principles of cooperation that isolated cooperatives were struggling to keep alive).

Above all, “To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes” – a clear statement of revolutionary intent.

As for the General Rules [3], their very first sentence stated, “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves, that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule”.

Trade Unions

It was in its capacity as a trade union international that the IWMA achieved its most concrete results – and first came to the notice of the European working classes. The General Council – based from 1864 to 1872 in London – oversaw highly successful measures to stop employers importing strike-breakers from other European countries – mainly by issuing appeals through the respective national sections of the IWMA. And it organised loans and support for major industrial struggles such as the Paris bronze workers’ lock-out, the Geneva building workers’ strike and the bloody confrontation in the Belgian coalfields.

To achieve these successes it was necessary to confront those within the organisation who believed that fighting for better short-term wages and working conditions entailed unprincipled collaboration with the current social system. The followers of Proudhon and Owen maintained that, in any case, advances in wages would quickly be overhauled by a general rise in prices. In reality the politics of Proudhon offered so little threat to the existing bourgeois regime that the ‘great man’ was able to live out his days in France unmolested by the authoritarian Napoleon III.

In Germany, Lassalle, while no anarchist, with his “iron law of wages”, state-financed cooperative factories and secret negotiations with Bismarck, propagated a species of the same politics.

Marx led the charge in combatting these ideas. In 1865 a debate took place on the General Council between Marx and the Owenite, John Weston. Weston argued that the struggles of trade unions were futile. Any rise in wages would be nullified by a compensatory rise in prices. Marx’s contribution was later discovered in Engels’ papers and published in 1898 as ‘Value, Price and Profit'[4]. Marx argued that trade unions (the collective action of workers) could improve working class conditions by shifting the distribution of the social product between capital and labour (reducing the rate of surplus value extorted by capital). He went on to warn that trade unions “fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”

The instructions Marx drafted on behalf of the General Council for their delegates to the IWMA’s first congress in Geneva in September 1866 emphasised the need to link trade unions’ struggles with the fight for a new society: “[Trade unions should be] organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule.” And, “They must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation…. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions. [5]”

The battle over these issues was not decisively won until the Brussels congress of 1868, which overwhelming passed a resolution supporting the principle of strikes and trade union organisation.

The congress the following year in Basle saw the final defeat of the Proudhonists as Marx and Engels put together a coalition of British trade unionists and former Proudhonists from France and Belgium they had won to their banner, to pass a range of resolutions supporting nationalisation of key industries and, crucially, of all land. The mutualists envisaged peasant proprietorship of the land, but in 1869 could only muster six votes to oppose Marx’s bloc. The Times, reporting in some shock the extreme measures agreed at the Basle congress, consoled itself with the erroneous assumption that the six votes opposing land nationalisation were cast by “our fellow countrymen” [6].

Theoretical advances

The publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867 and the efforts Marx and Engels devoted to the dissemination of its ideas played an important role in their successes within the IWMA. Even before its publication, as a reading of the debate with John Weston demonstrates, extensive material from Capital found its way into Marx’s writing and discourse within the IWMA.

Indeed Marx and Engels developed their ideas in a number of areas during these years. On the question of national self-determination, Poland was an early source of conflict with the Proudhonists who took the position that the question of nations was irrelevant. For the majority of IWMA members (as for Marx and Engels), dismembered Poland’s right to exist was a political touchstone.

Ireland was a matter where Marx’s ideas evolved in response to events. Fenian actions in England (including the killing of a policeman) brought the issue to the attention of the British working class. Marx saw an opportunity to force the trade unionists on the General Council, in the interests of working class independence, to break definitively with the new Liberal Prime Minister, Gladstone, to whom some were beginning to gravitate [7].

More importantly, the attitude of what Marx styled the English working class towards the Irish had to be transformed in the interests of their own emancipation: “[I]t is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland. … For a long time I believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. I always expressed this point of view in the New York Tribune. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general. [8]”

Despite the name of the organisation, women were admitted to the IWMA and one woman, Harriet Law, was to serve on the General Council. Marx opposed the resolution approved by the 1866 Geneva congress to prohibit women’s labour. He took women’s equality seriously (despite a certain flippancy of language): “[V]ery great progress was demonstrated at the last congress of the American ‘Labor Union’ … by the fact that it treated the women workers with full parity; by contrast, the English, and to an even greater extent the gallant French, are displaying a marked narrowness of spirit in this respect. Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of the fair sex (plain ones included). [9]” The 1871 private London conference of the IWMA with the support of Marx was to approve self-organisation by women, ie, women’s branches.

The Paris Commune of March 18 to May 28 1871 was the high-point of Marx and Engel’s activity in the IWMA. In two statements for the General Council on the Franco-Prussian war and the formation of a French republic in September 1870, Marx had urged the French working class to avoid a premature uprising. Once the uprising occurred he threw himself into support for it: “World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would, on the other hand, be a very mystical nature, if “accidents” played no part. … Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained. [10]”

There were close links between the IWMA and the Commune, although subsequent claims in the bourgeois press that Marx had directed it were very far from the truth. Forty of the 81 elected members who took their seats had been involved in the workers’ movement and most had joined the IWMA. Followers of Proudhon and the revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui, were the most influential, but allies of Marx such as Leo Frankel and Edouard Vaillant (partly), took effective action.

The Commune – despite its bloody suppression – allowed Marx to make some of his most striking theoretical advances about the nature of working class revolution and the workers’ state that will follow it, the key lesson being that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” [11].

With the publication of ‘The Civil War in France’, the IWMA and Marx together achieved widespread fame (or, more precisely, notoriety). European rulers even demanded that the British government outlaw the IWMA. The furore that greeted ‘The Civil War in France’ brought simmering political differences – including with some of the British trade union leaders – to a head. They were keen to seek parliamentary seats now that the 1867 extension of the franchise was on the statute books – an alliance with the Liberal Party seemed the most likely route to success.

Before the formation of the IWMA Engels had commented on the influence of bourgeois ideas on the British working class. Now Marx as well as Engels went much further in condemning the opportunism of many workers’ leaders: “these men are more or less bribed by the bourgeoisie and the government”. And in identifying the limitations in the role that can be played by the trade unions in the absence of political leadership: “The trade unions can do nothing by themselves…. [The IWMA] is the only society to inspire complete confidence in the workers.”

The experience of the Commune and its defeat also sharpened the differences with Mikhail Bakunin – the proponent of full-blooded anarchism who emerged on the scene just as the mutualists were fading away. Marx and Engels won the votes against Bakunin’s disruptive tactics at the 1872 Hague congress, but they realised that the experiment that was the IWMA was probably drawing to a close. The General Council was relocated to the United States. In practice the move and the subsequent split in the international consigned it to history. Marx and Engels now devoted their political efforts to nurturing the growth of national political parties. This process was to culminate in the formation of the Second International in 1889.


So what lessons should we draw from the experience of Marx and Engels in the IWMA? First, the need to engage with where the working class is actually organised – not where we would wish it to be. That was the opportunity that Marx seized in September 1864.

Second, the importance of theory. A well-developed, solidly grounded body of theoretical work was the tool (or political ammunition) that enabled Marx to have an enormous impact on the development of the IWMA. But throughout the lifetime of the IWMA Marx also fought one struggle after another over the key strategic issues. Alongside the practical work of building international solidarity between workers, the story of the IWMA is of Marx’s struggle to win the workers’ movement across Europe (and latterly the United States) to a number of fundamental principles. In summary, those principles consisted of: organisational and political independence; participation in the class struggle (the “guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system”); against national chauvinism; and a firm orientation towards the revolutionary goal of the political rule of the working class.

Third, politically pluralistic forms of organisation provide an opportunity to press home the theoretical struggle and to win working class militants to the most advanced ideas. After all, Marx first encountered his future son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, as a Proudhonist in the French section of the IWMA. Marx did not seek to exclude anyone from the IWMA exclusively for their ideas. Political association with a non-proletarian social class was a different matter – as Louis Blanc discovered. Later Bakunin was expelled. However, this was an attempt to counter his secret, conspiratorial methods of organisation and because he had broken the assurances he had given about abandoning these methods to secure admission to the IWMA.

Fourth, the negative lesson that Marx was ultimately unable to stop the drift of the British trade union leaders to reformist politics. A reliance on the natural growth and development of the working class is in itself no guarantee that working class organisations will commit themselves to the emancipation of the working class. Revolutionary politics has to be fought for. The demise of the IWMA left the field open to the Lib-Lab politics that dominated the British working class for several decades. An effective challenge emerged only in the 1890s with the growth of the new unions for unskilled workers. Once a lesson of this sort is learnt there is no requirement to endlessly repeat the experience.

Engels’ comments on the significance of the IWMA from the vantage point of 1890 are instructive: “When the European workers had again gathered sufficient strength for a new onslaught upon the power of the ruling classes, the [IWMA] came into being. Its aim was to weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class of Europe and America. Therefore it could not set out from the principles laid down in the Manifesto. It was bound to have a programme which would not shut the door on the English trade unions, the French, Belgian, Italian, and Spanish Proudhonists, and the German Lassalleans. … For the ultimate final triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto, Marx relied solely upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily has to ensue from united action and discussion. … The working class of 1874, at the dissolution of the International, was altogether different from that of 1864, at its foundation. … by 1887 continental socialism was almost exclusively the theory heralded in the Manifesto. [12]”


1. Encapsulated in the March 1850 ‘Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League’: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/communist-league/1850-ad1.htm
2. Inaugural address of the IWMA, Oct 27 1864: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm
3. General Rules of the IWMA, Oct 27 1864: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/iwma/documents/1864/rules.htm
4. K Marx, ‘Value, Price and Profit’, 1865: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/value-price-profit/
5. K Marx, ‘Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council’, 1866: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/iwma/documents/1866/instructions.htm
6. H Collins and C Abramsky, ‘Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement’, London, 1965, p162
7. A H Nimtz, ‘Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough’, New York, 2000, p203
8. K Marx, ‘Letter to Engels’, December 11 1869: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1869/letters/69_12_10-abs.htm
9. K Marx, ‘Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann’, December 12 1868: https://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1868/letters/68_12_12.htm
10. K Marx, ‘Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann’, April 17 1871: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_04_17.htm
11. K Marx, ‘The Civil War in France’, May 1871: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm
12. 1890 preface to the German edition of the ‘Communist Manifesto’: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/preface.htm



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