First International

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

International, First


the International Working Men’s Association (1864—76), the first mass international organization of the proletariat, founded and led by K. Marx and F. Engels. The First International represented a very important stage in the struggle of the founders of scientific communism for a proletarian party and for the continuation of the work begun by them in the Communist League.

The First International arose during the years of the greatest flourishing of premonopoly capitalism, in the midst of an upsurge in the general democratic and workers’ movements at the beginning of the 1860’s. The working class of the economically most developed countries of Western Europe, having grown in numbers and been enriched by the experience of the revolutions of 1848–49, freed itself from the influence of the bourgeoisie and started on the path of independent political activity.

The First International was founded on Sept. 28, 1864, at an international conference, held in St. Martin’s Hall in London, by English and French workers who jointly protested the suppression of the Polish national liberation uprising of 1863–64 by the European powers and who strove to create an international workers’ association for the defense of common class interests. Representatives of Polish, Italian, Irish, and German workers, among them Marx, also participated in the assembly. Engels wrote: “among all the participants, there was only one man who clearly understood what was happening, and what it was necessary to found; it was the man who as early as 1848 flung the following slogan to the world: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 22, p. 355). Marx became a member of the steering committee, later called the General Council, which was elected at the assembly. He was also elected to the more select Standing Committee, which was chosen from among the members of the General Council. Rallying the most conscious members of the council around himself, Marx actually became the leader of the First International and thus put an end to attempts by bourgeois elements, such as G. Mazzini, to lead the workers’ movement.

The founding manifesto and the Rules of the International Working Men’s Association, which were prepared by Marx, were confirmed by the General Council on Nov. 1, 1864. These very important programmatic documents formulated in the most general form the aims of the proletarian movement—the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of the power of the working class—and proclaimed its fundamental principle: “The liberation of the working class must be won by the working class itself.” In order to fuse together the separate sections of the European working class, it was necessary to advance a program that “would not shut the door on the English trade unions, the French, Belgian, Italian, and Spanish Proudhonists, and the German Lassalleans” (ibid., p. 61). Joint participation in class battles, unity of action of the international proletariat, and the exchange of experience in the press and at congresses were to gradually lead the working masses to grasp the idea of Marxism as a teaching that revealed the objective laws of social development and that met the fundamental interests of the working class of all countries.

The Rules of the International provided for a combination of the democratic rights of the national organizations with the principle of centralization, ensuring the unity of action of the proletariat on an international scale. Leadership was exercised by the General Council, which was elected annually by a general congress and which was located in London until 1872 and then in New York. In each country the First International depended upon already existing workers’ organizations or upon newly formed sections. Marx occupied the post of corresponding secretary for Germany and for several other countries, but in fact he directed the work of the General Council and of the First International as a whole. Engels also became a member of the council in September 1870 and moved from Manchester to London. Marx and Engels united around themselves the advanced workers of various countries who were moving to the position of scientific socialism. Among those supporting Marx and Engels during the period of the activity of the First International were A. Bebel, W. Liebknecht (Germany), J. P. Becker (Switzerland), F.-A. Sorge (USA), and J. Mesa and P. Inglesias (Spain). Members of the General Council who supported Marx included the Germans F. Lessner and J. G. Eccarius; the Frenchmen E. Dupont, A. Serrailler, and P. Lafargue; the Swiss H. Jung; the Englishman R. Shaw; the Irishman J. P. MacDonnel; the Hungarian L. Frankel; and the Pole W. Wroblewski. The Russian revolutionaries P. I. Utin, G. A. Lopatin, E. L. Dmitrieva, and P. L. Lavrov actively participated in the First International.

From its first days, the efforts of the General Council were aimed at involving workers of different countries in the ranks of the First International. The council worked to organize the strike struggle and workers’ solidarity actions and to develop the workers’ press. The First International organized political actions of the proletariat, such as the struggle for a democratic electoral reform in Great Britain, and organized resistance to the aggressive policies of the ruling classes. The conferences and congresses of the First International began to exert an influence on the development of the programs and tactics of the international proletarian movement.

The London conference of the International Working Men’s Association (Sept. 25–29, 1865), with the participation of leaders of sections on the continent and of members of the General Council, confirmed the agenda of the forthcoming congress. Despite the opposition of the French and Belgian Proudhonists, Marx obtained the inclusion on the agenda of the demand for the restoration of Poland on a democratic basis. This demand created the basis for joint actions by workers of different countries against the reactionary foreign policy of the European governments. In rejecting this demand, the Proudhonists in fact justified the treacherous policy of the ruling classes of Great Britain and France with regard to Poland and displayed a lack of understanding of the significance of the national liberation struggle. In the discussions on the national question that unfolded in the General Council in the spring of 1866, Marx criticized the position of the Proudhonists. At Marx’s request, Engels wrote the article “What Does Poland Have To Do With the Working Class?,” in which he explained the necessity for the proletariat to maintain an irreconcilable attitude towards policies of national oppression (Marx and Engels, Soch., vol. 16, pp. 156–66).

The First Congress of the First International took place in Geneva, Sept. 3–8, 1866. Sixty persons participated, representing 25 sections and 11 workers’ societies of Great Britain, France, Switzerland, and Germany. Although he was unable to be present at the congress, Marx prepared the draft resolutions (“Instructions to the Delegates of the Provisional Central Council on Different Questions,” ibid., pp. 194—203) that lay at the basis of the decisions of the congress on the legislative reduction of the working day to eight hours for all workers, on the protection of woman and child labor, on compulsory technical education, and on the abolition of the standing armies. Especially significant was the resolution on the trade unions, which was directed against the Proudhonists, who denied the necessity of trade union organizations, the German Lassalleans, who scorned them, and the English reformist leaders, who reduced the activity of the trade unions to the purely economic struggle within the framework of capitalist society. The resolution closely bound the economic struggle of the proletariat with the political. The congress noted the great educational significance of cooperative societies, which showed the workers the possibility of the socialist organization of labor, which would be realizable, however, only after the transfer of power into their hands. The congress confirmed the Rules of the First International.

The decisions of the Geneva congress, which marked the completion of the period of the formation of the First International as an international mass proletarian organization, were an important indicator of the correctness of the programmatic and organizational principles of Marxism.

The Second Congress was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, Sept. 2–8, 1867. More than 60 delegates were present, representing workers of Switzerland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy. A significant group of supporters of collective property in land appeared among the German, Belgian, and other delegates. They demanded the inclusion of the agrarian question on the agenda of the next congress. A resolution deeming political freedom to be a necessary condition of the social emancipation of the proletariat was also adopted.

Beginning in the autumn of 1867, in connection with the raising of the question of support for the national liberation movement in Ireland, Marx intensified his struggle against reformism and the great-power tendencies of the trade union leaders (G. Odger, B. Lucraft). V. I. Lenin wrote in 1914: “The policy of Marx and Engels on the Irish question serves as a splendid example of the attitude the proletariat of the oppressor nations should adopt towards national movements, an example which has lost none of its immense practical importance” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 25, p. 307).

The Third Congress was held in Brussels, Sept. 6–13, 1868. Approximately 100 delegates participated from Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, and Switzerland. Marx directly participated in the meetings that the General Council held in July and August to prepare for the congress. Marx wrote the annual report of the General Council and the most important draft resolutions. The strengthening of the current of left Proud-honism, which reflected the general leftward trend of the working masses in France, could be seen in the decisions of the congress. Many French and Belgian delegates supported the delegation of the General Council in its struggle against the group of right Proudhonists, led by H. L. Tolain. The resolution on the socialization of land, and also of railroads and mines, which was adopted after the report of the Belgian socialist C. De Paepe based on materials provided by Marx, was of enormous significance. Despite the opposition of the right Proudhonists, the congress adopted a resolution, which was also formulated by Marx, stating that the introduction of machinery would involve the organization of collective labor and would create the preconditions for the transition to the socialist system of production (Marx and Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 16, p. 328). The congress advised workers of all nationalities to study Marx’s work Das Kapital, which had appeared in the spring of 1867.

The decisions of the Brussels congress signified the victory of revolutionary proletarian socialism over petit bourgeois reformism in the First International. A further struggle was waged to defend Marxist principles in the international workers’ movement against the anarchist-sectarian views of M. A. Bakunin and his supporters. Bakunin was defeated in his attempt to gain the admission to the First International for the anarchist organization that he had founded in 1868, the Social Democratic Alliance. Bakunin then announced the dissolution of the alliance in 1869, preserving it as a secret organization within the First International.

By this time, the tendency toward the formation of the first independent working-class parties in individual countries on the basis of the program of the First International was taking shape. In Germany, in September 1868, the Nuremberg congress of the Workers’ Educational Society, at which 14,000 workers were represented, declared its adherence to the program of the First International. The Social Democratic Party of Germany was founded at a congress in Eisenach in August 1869.

The Fourth Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland, Sept. 6–11, 1869. There were 78 delegates present, from Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. A representative of American workers also came—the delegate of the National Labor Union, A. C. Cameron. The decisions of the Basel congress confirmed the Brussels resolutions on the socialization of land, delivered a final blow to the right Proudhonists, and played a decisive role in defining the agrarian program of the First International. This program was based on the Marxist principle of the alliance of the working class and the peasantry. Fundamental differences between Marx’s supporters and the Bakuninists on the question of the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat were already making it impossible for the Bakuninists to remain within the ranks of the First International in the future. Bakunin advanced the idea of the abolition of inheritance as a means to hasten the transfer of land from private landowners to society. Marx drew up the “Report of the General Council on the Right of Inheritance” for the congress, in which he criticized Bakunin’s Utopian idea of attaining socialism by means of this measure and showed that it could only antagonize the peasantry at the very moment when the First International faced the practical task of expanding its influence in the countryside.

The sections of the First International developed a propaganda campaign during the winter of 1869–70 to promote the decisions of the Basel congress on the agrarian question. The Land and Labor League was founded in Great Britain on the initiative of Marx and with the participation of the English members of the General Council. Along with the demand for the nationalization of the land, the program of the league contained the Chartist demand for universal suffrage. The Geneva sections of the First International published the “Manifesto to Agricultural Workers,” written by J. P. Becker, which was widely distributed in Germany and Austria-Hungary and was then translated into Russian. Striving to help the German Social Democrats (Eisenachers) to develop revolutionary tactics on the agrarian question, Engels, in the preface to the new edition of his work The Peasant War in Germany, pointed to the need for a differentiated approach to the various categories of peasants and for an orientation based on the firm union of the industrial working class with the agricultural proletariat and the laboring peasantry (Marx and Engels, Soch., vol. 16, pp. 412–20).

After the Basel congress, Bakunin and his supporters, striving to destroy the First International from within, began a campaign against the General Council. They published a series of articles in the Geneva newspaper Egalité in which they slanderously accused the General Council of violating the rules of the association in supposedly being carried away by the Irish question and foisting it on the international labor movement to the detriment of the interests of the proletariat. In a circular to all sections of the First International known as the “Confidential Communication,” Marx refuted all of Bakunin’s charges against the General Council, demonstrating in particular the international importance of the struggle for support of the Irish national liberation movement, in contrast to the chauvinistic position of the English trade union leaders on the Irish question and to the national nihilism of the Bakuninists themselves.

In the struggle against Bakuninism, Marx and Engels were supported by the Russian section of the First International, which was founded at the end of 1869 and the beginning of 1870 in Geneva. At the request of the members of the section, Marx became its representative, or the corresponding secretary for Russia, on the General Council.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 prevented the convocation of the regular Fifth Congress of the First International, which was to have been held in Mainz in September 1870. In appeals issued in the name of the General Council on July 23 and Sept. 9, 1870, Marx analyzed the character of the war in its two phases. The correct tactics of the European proletariat on the war were defined in accordance with these appeals. The documents of the General Council counterposed the international unity of the working class and the brotherhood of the French and German workers to bourgeois chauvinism. For the first time in history, broad anti-war demonstrations by the working class of various countries took place during the war, inspired by the First International. The German Social Democratic Labor Party (Eisenachers) demonstrated an example of genuine proletarian internationalism. W. Liebknecht and A. Bebel refused to vote for war credits in the Reichstag on July 21, 1870. On Sept. 5, 1870, the day after the overthrow of the Second Empire in France, the central committee of the Eisenach party issued the so-called Braunschweig Manifesto, which demanded the immediate conclusion of an honorable peace with the French republic, with no annexations or indemnities.

Marx persistently advised the French workers to make use of bourgeois-democratic freedoms to create an independent party. He warned the Parisian workers against an inopportune uprising at the moment when enemy troops stood at the gates of Paris. Marx foresaw that the French bourgeoisie, without a moment’s thought, would call on the Prussian inverventionists for assistance against the insurgents.

At the moment of the revolution of Mar. 18, 1871, the Parisian sections were too weak theoretically and organizationally to lead the French working class, but members of the First International of various nationalities, including L. E. Varlin, L. Fran-kel, J. Dąbrowski, and E. L. Dmitrieva, played prominent roles in the Commune. Many of them fell at the barricades. The General Council undertook an enormous campaign in support of the Commune, explaining the true meaning of the Parisian events to the workers of all countries and calling on them to give moral and material aid to the Communards. Marx maintained close ties with the Commune, received information, and provided practical advice concerning the economic, political, and military activity of the Commune. On the instructions of the General Council, Marx wrote an appeal to all members of the International in Europe and the USA entitled “The Civil War in France,” in which he revealed the essence of the Commune as the first experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in history. He analyzed its errors and the causes of its defeat and provided a profound theoretical and general conclusion of the lessons of the Commune.

The actions of the First International in defense of the first proletarian state in history incurred the hatred of the international bourgeoisie. Persecution of the First International began in all countries. Mere membership in the International was declared a state crime almost everywhere. The Bakuninists revived their subversive activity at precisely that moment.

The London conference of delegates of the First International, whose work was led by Marx and Engels, was held Sept. 17–23, 1871. It was necessary to draw conclusions from the lessons of the Paris Commune and to secure these conclusions in the program of the First International, thus delivering a blow to sectarianism and anarchism. The questions of the political struggle of the proletariat, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the role of the party were at the center of attention. The conference adopted a very important resolution on the need to create independent political parties of the proletariat in every country as a decisive condition for the victory of the proletarian revolution, and it called on the sections to increase their work in trade unions, among women, and in rural areas.

In response to the London resolutions, the Bakuninists, at a separate congress in Sonvilliers, Switzerland, on Nov. 12, 1871, issued the so-called Sonvilliers circular, in which they called for the abolition of the General Council and proclaimed a free, autonomous section. Striving to paralyze the harmful influence of anarchist propaganda, Marx and Engels drew up a circular, approved by the General Council on Mar. 5, 1872. In this circular, known by the title “Imaginary Splits in the International,” Marx and Engels exposed the intrigues of Bakunin and revealed the petit bourgeois essence of his eclectic views.

The Fifth Congress took place in The Hague, Sept. 2–7, 1872, with the direct participation of Marx and Engels. A fierce struggle raged at the congress, as a result of which the Bakuninists, who entered into a bloc with the reformist leaders of the English trade unions, were dealt a crushing blow. Marx’s line was supported by the members of the General Council—the Blanquists, including E. Vaillant and others and the delegates F.-A. Sorge, J. P. Becker, and P. Lafargue. The congress confirmed the resolution of the London conference on the political activity of the working class and included a corresponding new point in the Rules of the First International. Bakunin and his supporter J. Guillaume were expelled from the First International. The congress resolved to publish the report of the General Council on the investigation of the secret activity of the Bakuninists within the First International. The report, drawn up by Marx and Engels with the participation of P. Lafargue, was published in 1873 under the title “The Social Democratic Alliance and the International Working Men’s Association.” Because of the unfavorable situation on the continent, where reactionary forces were in control, and the threat that the English reformists and Blan-quist sectarians could capture the leadership of the General Council, the council was moved to New York at Marx and Engels’ insistence. The membership of the General Council was completely changed, with the leaders of the North American federation, including F.-A. Sorge and F. Bolte, forming the nucleus of it.

In the months immediately following the Hague congress, Marx and Engels continued to be immediately engaged in the affairs of the First International, acting as delegates of the General Council in Europe and propagandizing the resolutions of the Hague congress. On their initiative the New York General Council declared the Bakuninists and the organizations supporting them, which had embarked on a course of sabotaging the Hague resolutions and splitting the First International, outside the ranks of the International. The Hague congress signified the ideological victory of Marxism. The historical task of the First International was completed, and the ideas of Marxism were brought to the advanced workers of the developed countries of the world. In the new historical situation that arose after the defeat of the Paris Commune, the workers’ movement faced the immediate task of forming “mass socialist working-class parties in individual national states” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 26, p. 50). Marx and Engels saw the need for the transition to new organizational forms. “Taking the situation in Europe into consideration, I consider it absolutely useful to put aside temporarily the formal organization of the International. Events and the inevitable development and complication of the situation will themselves take care of the restoration of the International in an improved form,” wrote Marx to F.-A. Sorge, on Sept. 27,1873 (Marx and Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 33, pp. 508–09). The First International was officially dissolved by the decision of the Philadelphia conference of 1876.

The First International was the precursor of the Communist parties that arose in the 20th century under the banner of Marxism-Leninism, and it was of enormous importance. Lenin wrote: “It is unforgettable, it will remain forever in the history of the workers’ struggle for their emancipation. It laid the foundation of that edifice of the world socialist republic which it is now our good fortune to be building” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 38, p. 230).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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