Basic Principles of Marxism – Part Seven: Communism and the First International

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 93 February/March 1990

the 1st international

That Marx participated in the First International from the beginning was decisive and gave the International a place in working class history. He was, in fact, drawn into its proceedings at the last minute, being invited to attend a committee meeting to finalise the arrangements of the founding meeting half an hour before it took place. An estimated 2,000 people attended the meeting. It had been given a great deal of publicity in the London trade union movement through the Beehive. Besides the many British trade unionists present there were strong contingents of French, Italian, Swiss and Polish workers as well as many members of the German Workers' Educational Society. (This is the second in a three part series on the First International.)

In the opening speech the chair, Professor Beesly, expressed the hope that ‘the results of the meeting would be to create a co-operative and fraternal feeling between the workingmen of England and all other countries’. In his address he attacked British foreign and colonial policy. ‘England wrongfully held possession of Gibraltar from Spain, and her conduct in China, Japan, India and elsewhere was cowardly and unprincipled.’ Beesly had included Britain's policy towards Ireland in his indictment but the Beehive failed to report this – a fact of some significance for later events. (Ireland and the First International will be covered in a separate article).

After the reading of British Address ‘to the French workmen’ and the French reply, an outline of a plan for organising the International was given. The establishment of an international association was later formally moved and a committee was elected to draw up rules and principles. This committee was the first General Council of the International and it was to meet in London. Marx was one of the two German representatives on the committee. On 5 October 1864 he was elected to a sub-committee of nine which was to work out a platform of principles and rules of the International. After failing to attend the first two sub-committee meetings, but managing at a later date to have confused attempts to write the rules and principles rejected, Marx himself then wrote the Inaugural Address of the Workingmen's International Association and the 10 Provisional Rules of the Association. These were accepted with a few minor changes.


The International brought together representatives of the European labour movement at different stages of development. There were English trade unionists who were indifferent to socialism and hostile to revolution. There were French Proudhonists, who while professing a form of socialism were hostile not only to revolution but all forms of politics. The French representatives elected to the General Council at the founding meeting were Republican democrats as were the Italian followers of Mazzini and both groups were actively opposed to an independent workers movement.

Marx understood that any attempt to achieve international unity of the proletariat could not be finally successful until socialist parties in the different countries were consolidated and strengthened. The working class movement in many countries was still in its infancy and only in a few countries had started to develop as an independent force. Such developments had to be encouraged. While it was necessary to fight against the bourgeois and petty bourgeois influences in the newly developing movements, the International had to be based on real forces in those movements as well as aiding the creation of independent working class parties in many different countries. The revival of the working class movements in Britain and France and the internationalist traditions of those movements, offered a real foundation on which to build. That was why Marx temporarily put aside his theoretical work on Das Kapital and involved himself in the organisation of the International.

Marx drafted the Inaugural Address and the Provisional Rules so that the general principles of communism which they did contain would be in a form acceptable to the real forces in the International – especially the English trade unions. The Address concentrated on what Marx privately called ‘a sort of review of the adventures of the working class since 1845’. It took as its starting point the ever-widening gap between the wealth produced by modern industry and the poverty of the working class over the previous 20 years – an uncontentious argument. Whereas the Communist Manifesto had spoken of the need ‘to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state’, the Address said of the cooperative movement that it showed that ‘production on a large scale ... may be carried out without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands’ but to ‘save the industrious masses’ it ‘had to be developed to national dimensions, and consequently to be fostered by national means’. As the ‘lords of the land and the lords of capital’ would do all in their power to prevent the emancipation of labour, the Address argued that ‘to conquer political power has become the great duty of the working class’. However, the context would allow the majority of English supporters of the International to interpret that as simply winning the suffrage. The Address ends by pointing to the ‘heroic resistance’ of the English working classes in preventing their government’s intervention in the American Civil War. It argues that the fight to counteract such ‘a foreign policy in pursuit of criminal designs . . .’ forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class.


In the early years of the International the main disputes were between Marxism and Proudhonism, and in the later years between Marxism and anarchism. Proudhon opposed communism. He preached a version of anarchism which rejected ‘politics’ and looked to the ‘free exchange’ of products between independent artisans and co-operatives as the means of emancipating the small producer. This small scale production was to be made viable by cheap credit from a ‘people's bank’ which would only charge a level of interest to cover costs. The state had no place in his scheme and was regarded as a coercive force which had to be opposed. The Proudhonists even rejected strikes as a ‘forcible’ interference in economic relations. Finally, in spite of their formal gestures at the first meeting of the International, the Proudhonists in fact opposed all attempts to involve the International in the Polish question.

Marx had already characterised Proudhonism as a petit bourgeois socialist trend in 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy. Proudhonism, however, gained roots in the workers’ movement in France in the 1850s and 1860s precisely because the state was associated with the tyrannical centralisation of Napoleon III and large scale industry was beginning to advance at the expense of the small independent producer. Proudhonism was the standpoint of the old petit bourgeoisie, artisans and small producers, confronted with proletarianisation as large-scale capitalist industry started to advance.

Proudhonism suffered a major defeat at the Geneva Congress of the International (September 1866) where a programme written by Marx was accepted. This programme emphasised the importance of struggle to win reforms from the existing bourgeois state with particular reference to labour legislation (the eight hour day, restrictions on juvenile and child labour etc) and the important role of trade unions in these struggles. ‘In enforcing such laws, ‘ said Marx, ‘the working class do not fortify governmental power. On the contrary, they transform that power, now used against them, into their own agency.’ Such struggles ‘give direct nourishment and impetus to the requirements of the class struggle and the organisation of workers into a class’ (letter to Kugelman, 9 October 1866). Successful intervention by the International in strikes in France, Switzerland and Belgium not only led to strong sections being built in those countries but dealt a severe blow to Proudhonism.

Bakunin, like Proudhon, saw in the centralised state and its institutions the denial of freedom. But whereas Proudhon rejected the forcible overthrow of the state, Bakunin wanted to overthrow it and rejected any political action which did not aim at social revolution. He opposed campaigns for social reforms, participation in elections and all attempts to win reforms from the state. In particular, he opposed the dictatorship of the proletariat, seeing in it a form of despotism. Marx's arguments against anarchism at the time of the International are set out in Political Indifferentism and Conspectus of Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy. The pamphlet The Alliance of Social Democracy and the International Working Men’s Association commissioned by the Hague Congress sets out the case against Bakunin’s ‘secret’ organisation in the International.


As the Bakuninist campaign in the International got under way a major event occurred which raised vital new questions for the International on the issue of working class political power. Following the events taking place after the defeat of Napoleon in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) the workers of Paris seized power for a period of two months – the Paris Commune was born (March 1871). The General Council's official position on the Paris Commune was written by Marx under the title The Civil War in France. It is a remarkable document and represents a substantial addition to the theory of proletarian revolution worked out in the Communist Manifesto. In September 1870 Marx warned against an insurrection as an act of desperate folly. But after it had taken place, after the ‘masses arose’, Marx was able to appreciate ‘that there are moments of history when a desperate struggle of the masses, even for a hopeless cause, is essential for the further schooling of these masses and their training for the next struggle’ (Lenin). Marx used the heroic uprising of the Paris working class for the future struggle, drawing lessons which were of enormous importance for the Russian working class. For Marx the Commune was essentially:

‘A working class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing class against the appropriating classes, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of the working class.’

It had shown conclusively that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery and use it for its own purposes. It had to destroy the old state machine. The basic structural features of the Commune illustrate this. They were:
1. The abolition of an armed force separate from and hence opposed to the people – the abolition of the standing army and the substitution for it of an armed people.
2. The vesting of all political functions not in representatives but recallable delegates – chosen by universal suffrage and ‘responsible and revocable at short terms’.
3. The absence of material privileges for delegated officials – ‘the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages’.
4. The union of executive, legislative and judicial power – for example, ‘public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible and revocable’.
5. The Commune was to be the political form from the smallest country hamlet to the district assemblies and the National Assembly.

The Civil War in France caused a storm of protest against the International. In Britain Odger and Lucraft, influential members of the General Council, came under severe attack in the British newspapers. As a result they decided to resign from the General Council. However, the crisis to which the First International eventually succumbed did not directly arise from this but from the conflict between Marxism and anarchism.

The London Conference of the International (1871) saw a victory for the Marxists against Bakunin in that it passed a resolution drawn up by Marx on the ‘Political Action of the Working Class’. This resolution reminded the Conference of the passage in the Inaugural Address which said that ‘to conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working class’, and went on to spell this out in more concrete terms.

However, the disputes with the anarchists and Bakunin were by no means over, and eventually Marx found it necessary at the Hague Congress to propose that the General Council be moved to New York ‘to protect it from disintegrating elements’. There it was safe in the hands of Marx’s German American followers. It soon died a natural death. The International, however, had laid the basis for the building of proletarian socialist parties in many different countries. Its ideological gains were vital for the further development of the international working class movement.