Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Programme And Politics Of the First International

The First International was the first attempt by Marx and Engels to put into practice the ideas they had developed on the basis of their theory of Historical Materialism. It was not the first political organisation they had belonged to, of course. As Young Hegelians they began as radical Liberals via the Rheinische Zeitung to advocate the cause of the German bourgeoisie against Prussian autocracy. In the 1830's they were members of the League of the Just, which, typical of the socialist sects of the time, was organised on an elitist, and conspiratorial basis. As Marx and Engels developed separately the theory of Historical Materialism, they came to understand the role that the working class was to play in the revolution, and rejected these previous ideas about small conspiratorial groups. They insisted when the Communist League was established that it reject such ideas, and forms of organisation and orient towards the working class. But, Engels, in his History of the Communist League, points out that it too was not really a Workers organisation. Its members were almost exclusively artisans, and like the League of the Just their ideas were still based on ideas about universal brotherhood and love, rather than the scientific socialism that he and Marx were developing. This was not surprising, the Communist League was made up mostly of German emigres, but at the time, the only place where a working class of any size existed, was in Britain.

In 1848, when the European bourgeois revolutions erupted, Marx and Engels, believing that the working class would have to play a major role in them, and that they would quickly roll over via a process of Permanent Revolution, into socialist revolutions, applied their method, and the dictum they had set out in the Communist Manifesto.

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.”

They joined the bourgeois German Democrat Party, because it had the ear of the German workers. Engels described their attitude in a letter towards the end of his life to German socialists in the US, in giving his advice on how they should go about building an American Workers Party. He wrote,

”When we returned to Germany, in spring 1848, we joined the Democratic Party as the only possible means of getting the ear of the working class; we were the most advanced wing of that party, but still a wing of it.”

Engels to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky

By the 1860's, the British Labour Movement had developed considerably, though it had not yet developed the mass New Unionism, based on the organisation of unskilled workers, nor consolidated the kind of National Structure, that arose at the end of the century, and beginning of the 20th Century. In the US, an Industrial Revolution was already well underway, and in France, Louis Bonaparte was using the power of the State to bring about a rapid industrialisation, and Bismark was doing the same thing in Germany. The analysis they had made in the Communist Manifesto, that Capitalist production “compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image” was being verified before their eyes, and so was the concomitant of that process, the creation of vast working classes, who were the gravediggers of that Capitalism. One of the central features of Marx and Engels theory was that their role was to observe the real movement, to take its actual development, codify it, and develop it. It was not to start from their own ideas, their own perception of what the workers should do, and try to impose it upon them. As Engels put it,

“… Communism among the French and Germans, Chartism among the English, now no longer appeared as something accidental, which could just as well not have occurred. These movements now presented themselves as a movement of the modern oppressed class, the proletariat, as the more or less developed forms of its historically necessary struggle against the ruling class, the bourgeoisie; as forms of the class struggle, but distinguished from all earlier class struggles by this one thing, that the present-day oppressed class the proletariat, cannot achieve its emancipation without at the same time emancipating society as a whole from division into classes and, therefore, from class struggles. And Communism now no longer meant the concoction, by means of the imagination, of an ideal society as perfect as possible, but insight into the nature, the conditions and the consequent general aims of the struggle waged by the proletariat.”

“History of the Communist League”


“do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse confounded by forcing down people's throats things which at present they cannot properly understand, but which they soon will learn.”

Engels to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky

The workers had been making great strides in developing their own alternative to Capitalism. Marx wrote in Capital,

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises. into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.”

It was a message he echoed in his Inaugural Address to the First International,

“But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. In England, the seeds of the co-operative system were sown by Robert Owen; the workingmen’s experiments tried on the Continent were, in fact, the practical upshot of the theories, not invented, but loudly proclaimed, in 1848.”

It was not just the Co-operative Factories. Workers throughout Europe, beginning in Britain, had responded to the adulteration of food, and high prices by establishing their own retail Co-operative Societies that had grown rapidly in competition with private retailers. They had begun to branch out into areas of production to meet their own needs, and to create Co-operative Wholesale Societies. In the absence of any other education for workers, these Co-ops had established Libraries and Reading Rooms over the stores, and as early as 1852, devoted a portion of their profits to Education, for their workers and members. In Britain they had set up a Co-operative College, to which workers from all over the world came to study, emphasising the nature of this Co-operative Movement as by nature International. They had set up Co-operative Funds to cover workers as employees or Members for events such as sickness and medical costs, and aimed to provide employment for members who found themselves out of work, or perpetually facing reductions in their wages. That was in addition to the Friendly Societies that the workers had set up to cover similar eventualities.
It is what Marx refers to as workers “self-government.”

But, he also recognised that just as the bourgeoisie had faced not just economic competition from the feudal guild monopolies, but had had to contend with political interference and attacks by the feudal state, so a developing co-operative mode of production would face not just economic competition from Capital, but attempts by the Capitalist State to frustrate its development, to keep it within bounds.

“.. the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labour. Remember the sneer with which, last session, Lord Palmerston put down the advocates of the Irish Tenants’ Right Bill. The House of Commons, cried he, is a house of landed proprietors. To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes. They seem to have comprehended this, for in England, Germany, Italy, and France, there have taken place simultaneous revivals, and simultaneous efforts are being made at the political organization of the workingmen’s party.”

Here then was the basis of the First International. It was not some desire on the part of Marx or a few revolutionaries to create such a party in the hope that Workers might join it. It was an actual movement by the workers themselves that Marx was responding to. And in that vein, he proceeded accordingly. As Engels put it,

“When Marx founded the International, he drew up the General Rules in such a way that all working-class socialists of that period could join it -- Proudhonists, Pierre Lerouxists and even the more advanced section of the English Trades Unions; and it was only through this latitude that the International became what it was, the means of gradually dissolving and absorbing all these minor sects, with the exception of the Anarchists, whose sudden appearance in various countries was but the effect of the violent bourgeois reaction after the Commune and could therefore safely be left by us to die out of itself, as it did. Had we from 1864, to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who openly adopted our platform where should we be to-day? I think that all our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organisation, and I am afraid that if the German Americans choose a different line they will commit a great mistake.”

I believe the conditions of today mutatis mutandis are similar to those that faced Marx and Engels at that time. Although, large Workers Parties exist in most countries, these parties are similar to the German Democrats, they are parties that have the ear of the workers, are largely composed of workers, and yet are bourgeois parties in terms of their ideology. There are numerous “socialist” sects, but they are largely composed of petit-bourgeois, and isolated from the working class and its parties. The task is not to force down the workers throats ideas they are not yet ready to accept, but which they will soon understand, if the Marxists act accordingly, not to transform the Left's own desire to create a new Party that is to its taste in the hope that workers will flock to it, but to relate to the working class where they are now, including in its Party. From that perspective, as well as for the purpose of removing some of the muck of ages that has accummulated over authentic Marxism during the last century, looking at the Politics and Programme of the First International is a useful exercise. That is what this series of posts will seek to do.

1 comment:

Jacob Richter said...

It's been awhile, but I'd like to see how this compares to Louis Proyect's series of articles on the International Workingmen's Association, the original Socialist International, the Communist International, the International Working Union of Socialist Parties, the World Party of Socialist Revolution (a.k.a. "Fourth International"), and his conclusion: