First International

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First International

Great Britain 1864


On 28 September 1864 the International Working Men's Association (IWMA) was established in London. The organization, later known as the "First International," consisted of skilled workers, artisans, and intellectuals and comprised trade unions, cooperatives, and educational associations. It thrived during the years before 1872. In 1876 the organization disbanded, although efforts to revive it continued for decades. The IWMA was the first organization to achieve fairly systematic material labor solidarity across national borders. In addition to its chapters in Great Britain, the organization operated in many countries in Continental Europe, in the United States, and in parts of South America. Within the organization the followers of Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon engaged in heated debates.


  • 1844: Samuel Laing, in a prize-winning essay on Britain's "National Distress," describes conditions in a nation convulsed by the early Industrial Revolution. A third of the population, according to Laing, "hover[s] on the verge of actual starvation"; another third is forced to labor in "crowded factories"; and only the top third "earn[s] high wages, amply sufficient to support them in respectability and comfort."
  • 1849: Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.
  • 1854: In the United States, the Kansas-Nebraska Act calls for decisions on the legality of slavery to be made through local votes. Instead of reducing divisions, this measure will result in widespread rioting and bloodshed and will only further hasten the looming conflict over slavery and states' rights.
  • 1857: Sepoy Mutiny, an unsuccessful revolt by Indian troops against the British East India Company begins. As a result of the rebellion, which lasts into 1858, England places India under direct crown rule.
  • 1860: Louis Pasteur pioneers his method of "pasteurizing" milk by heating it to high temperatures in order to kill harmful microbes.
  • 1862: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables depicts injustices in French society, and Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons introduces the term nihilism.
  • 1864: General William Tecumseh Sherman conducts his Atlanta campaign and his "march to the sea."
  • 1864: International Red Cross in Geneva is established.
  • 1864: George M. Pullman and Ben Field patent their design for a sleeping car with folding upper berths.
  • 1866: Austrian monk Gregor Mendel presents his theories on the laws of heredity. Though his ideas will be forgotten for a time, they are destined to exert enormous influence on biological study in the twentieth century.
  • 1870: Franco-Prussian War begins. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1873: The gold standard, adopted by Germany in 1871 and eventually taken on by all major nations, spreads to Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. Though the United States does not officially base the value of its currency on gold until 1900, an unofficial gold standard dates from this period, even as a debate over "bimetallism" creates sharp divisions in American politics.

Event and Its Context

In the mid-nineteenth century the power of Great Britain exceeded that of any other nation: the British ran a worldwide colonial empire and enjoyed the strongest economy on the face of the earth at the time. London was a fairly liberal sanctuary. Political dissidents from many countries sought refuge there. London's labor movement was fairly extensive and well organized. Understandably, therefore, the city was the center of a gradually emerging labor internationalism. One of the first written manifestations of this trend was a document endorsed by the London-based Working Men's Association on 1 November 1836. In this document, entitled Address to the Belgian Working Classes, the WMA expressed the conviction "that our interests—nay, the interests of working men in all countries of the world—are identified." The article advised the Belgian "brethren" of the organization "to form, if possible, a union with countries around you," because "a federation of the working classes of Belgium, Holland and the Provinces of the Rhine would form an admirable democracy."

This interest in the formation of international labor alliances intensified after the revolutions of 1848. The movement produced several small organizations with a multinational memberships, such as the "Fraternal Democrats" and the "Communistische Arbeiter-Bildungs-Verein" (Communist Association for the Education of Working Men), a German group that included many non-German members. All of these small organizations shared several common characteristics. Their membership was comparatively small and did not exceed a few hundred. The groups were especially active in London, although not exclusively so. In general, the organizations' members were highly skilled workers and artisans. Their chief objectives were to provide education and information. The internationalism of these organizations was essentially theoretical, or perhaps rather ideological, in nature, and was in practice expressed above all through solidarity protests and manifested in activities designed to support the members' "brethren" in other countries. In addition to promoting solidarity in the labor struggles of the day, these organizations also supported nations that were engaged in the struggle for independence, such as Italy and Poland.

A parallel development that the international organizations promoted was provision of international aid in strikes, notably between England and continental Europe. The aid generally took one or both of two forms:

  • Financial aid for strikes in other countries, either "intraoccupational" in the sense of support for workers in the same occupation, or broader in scope. The first variant seems to have been the more common. In 1852 and again in 1862 the London Society of Compositors sent funds to a sister organization in Paris; similarly Paris construction workers aided their London counterparts in 1860. In the 1850s there were even attempts to publish bilingual trade journals.
  • Opposition to the use of strikebreakers. During several strikes, British employers tried to import strike breakers from the Continent. The British trade unions, which were only organized to serve city venues at the time, had tremendous difficulty preventing this practice. The enjoyed some rare successes on this front. For example, the London typefounders, during a strike in 1850, approached their colleagues in Paris and convinced them that they should assist in the prevention of recruitment of strikebreakers.

Collaboration between the British and the French unionists rapidly intensified, after a few workers from the French delegation encountered British trade unionists at the 1862 World Exhibition in London. The contacts established at the time proved to be of value a few months later in late January 1863, during the third Polish rebellion against Russian domination in slightly over three decades. London trade unionists were deeply committed to this struggle and invited their French colleagues to send a delegation to a solidarity meeting in their city. The French accepted the invitation. On 22 July 1863 the meeting took place as scheduled, and the copperplate engraver Henri Louis Tolain spoke on behalf of "the Paris workers." The next day the London Trades Council received the French delegation. In their welcoming speeches, both sides expressed a desire to work together more closely. The meeting participants decided that the London contingent would send an address to the Paris unions to propose an international labor association.

George Odger, the secretary of the Trades Council, wrote the text, which was published in December 1863 and entitled To the Workmen of France from the Working Men of England.The address comprised three elements. The first was a general appeal for international consultation between workers from different countries to promote peace and freedom. Second, it urged a simultaneous signature-gathering campaign in England and France for a petition to support the Polish insurgents. Third—between the two other items—the address noted trade union problems and suggested that a "fraternity of peoples" might aid in the struggle to alleviate the difficulties of laborers' "social condition." The appeal stated that attempts by organized labor to reduce the length of the work week or increase wages were often met my employers' threats to recruit laborers from Germany, Belgium, and France. The address placed the blame for the harm caused by this clearly on a lack of "regular and systematic" communications among their worker "brethren" from different countries. The proposed solution included effecting communications among laborers in different countries and a leveling out of wages among them. This, it was hoped, would prevent employers from engaging in "avaricious bargaining" intended to reduce the condition of all workers to that of the lowest echelon by playing them off against one another.

The French response to this earnest appeal reached London eight months later, after the repression of the Polish uprising. On 18 September 1864 a gathering convened at St. Martin's Hall in London, where in addition to the large turnout of London workers, substantial groups of French, Italian, Swiss, Polish, and German citizens were present. The Paris delegation consisted of Tolain, the passementier Antoine Limousin, and the bronzefounder Blaise Perrachon. Labor advocates at Paris workshops had collected 25 centime contributions for months to pay for their journeys to the meeting. The chairman that evening was Professor Edward Spencer Beesly. Also sitting on the stage in silence was the German emigrant, Dr. Karl Marx, who had been invited to attend by the preparatory committee. After a performance by a choir of German workers, delivery of the addresses and some debate, the attendees officially established the International Working Men's Association (IWMA). The provisional Central Committee, which consisted of 32 members of different nationalities (which included both Marx and Odger) was charged with drafting the articles of association and rules of procedure.

Although Marx was clearly influential in the new organization, the IWMA never became "Marxist," despite frequent allegations to this effect. The organization suffered from too many ideological factions and the contrasts between factions were too severe to allow any one philosophy to dominate. Many of the British adherents regarded themselves not as socialists but as politically concerned trade unionists at best. Among the French adherents, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was highly influential. This educated typographer had argued that property arose from blood, theft, and violence ("Property is theft"), that the state was the "gendarme and bailiff" of an unjust society, and that the future society should be based on a "reciprocity of services" (mutualism) of free farmers, artisans, and workers. Other members of the IWMA, however, were drawn to the insurrectionist ideas of Louis-Auguste Blanqui or the republican nationalism of Guiseppe Mazzini.

The Central Committee (which later became known as the General Council) adopted the articles of association on 1 November 1864 after a period of squabbling over the content of the document. An "Address to the Working Class" that was written by Marx and adopted with very minor amendments did not indicate that the IWMA had embraced "Marxist" principles. Admittedly, the preamble to the articles of association stated that "the economical subjection of the man of labour to the monopoliser of the means of labour" is the cause of "all social misery, mental degradation, and political dependence" and that economic emancipation is the supreme objective, "to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means." These considerations, however, were rather vague and could be interpreted in various ways.

In the years that followed, the IWMA leadership organized international congresses in Lausanne (1867), Brussels (1868), and Basel (1869). Participants at the congresses debated a great many controversial issues, such as the Polish question, strikes as battle strategies, the importance of producer cooperatives, attitudes toward the state, and the merits of inheritance law. The influence of the Proudhonists diminished with each successive congress. This decline culminated in a sense with the anti-Proudhonist decision at the Basel congress to include land nationalization in the program. Internal dissent did not end with this measure. The anarchist outlook of Mikhail Bakunin gradually gained influence and conflicted increasingly with Marx's communist ideologies. The philosophical differences between the factions concerned both theoretical positions and organizational practices. Bakunin opposed participation in elections and the struggle for social reforms, as this would instill in workers the illusion that they might be able to improve their predicament without concerted social revolution. Marx, however, believed that parliamentary struggle and social reforms could enhance class consciousness among workers and thus help to bring the revolution closer. The affiliated IMWA chapters in Spain, Italy, Swiss Jura, Belgium, and the Netherlands were inclined to support Bakunin, while those from Germany and German-speaking Switzerland tended to side with Marx.

The debate between Marxists and Bakuninists basically paralleled the disintegration of the IWMA. The heated debates did not mask the declining involvement of the two most important countries in the organization. The French movement had figured prominently in the Paris Commune of 1871 and had been virtually neutralized because of the severe repression that had followed. The British progressively lost interest as well. To make matters worse, the IWMA was already on very shaky financial and organizational ground. According to countless legends, the IWMA had many hundreds of thousands or even millions of members, vast sums of money, and a formidable secret political power. In reality, however, the organization was hard pressed to pay the rent for its London office and included at most a few thousand individual members.

The organization's internal conflicts peaked at the congress in The Hague in 1872. Bakunin and his ally James Guillaume were expelled in a move that alienated much of the remaining support. The transfer of the headquarters to New York (which was virtually inaccessible to the European constituency for all practical intents and purposes) meant that the days of the organization were numbered. Although the IWMA was not officially disbanded until the Philadelphia congress in 1876, its fate had been sealed four years earlier. Opponents to the exclusion of Bakunin and Guillaume did not acknowledge the decisions taken at The Hague congress and regarded their "anti-authoritarian International" (established that same year in St. Imier) as the legitimate successor to the failed association. The first congress of this new organization to be held in Geneva in 1873 was announced as the sixth congress of the IWMA. The new group was probably more influential among European workers than what was left of the old IWMA, and it certainly did not consist exclusively of Bakuninists. Even this International, however, which still convened congresses in 1874 (Brussels), 1876 (Bern), and 1877 (Verviers), collapsed. What remained was an anarchist international that survived into the twentieth century with ever-dwindling support.

The heyday of the IWMA spanned approximately five or six years. The failure of the efforts to revive the organization in the 1870s and 1880s indicated that it had become obsolete. Three factors appear to have undermined the IWMA. First, the organization lost the most important of its original raisonsd'être. In the beginning the British trade unions and their Continental sister organizations had been local and too weak as individual, independent entities to stop the import of strike breakers from other countries. When the local unions expanded and began to form national confederations, however, they became progressively more able to control their labor markets on their own merits, without the assistance of unionist organizations based in other countries. The interest of these local groups in the IWMA therefore diminished accordingly. The earliest sign of this process was in Britain, where the Trades Union Council (TUC) was established in 1868. Almost simultaneously, the labor movement obtained some form of state recognition. In 1867 the Reform Act extended the franchise. In 1871 the Trade Union Act came into force and had the effect of improving the legal status of the unions. In 1876 an Amending Act followed. Similar developments occurred in other North Atlantic countries, though with some delay. After Switzerland (1880) and Canada (1883), most other countries in the region followed within a few decades.

Another difficulty arose in the early 1870s, when the upward trend of capitalism was reversed in a slowdown of economic growth. The years up to about 1895 may be described as a period of retarded economic growth with stagnation and recession in a complex economic relationship. A gap appeared in British economic growth; the German and American economies were in a severe crisis; and the French economy of the 1880s was in serious trouble. Third, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the working classes entered into a closer relationship with their nation-states. Nationalist and chauvinist attitudes spread into ever-expanding social strata.

This combination of factors resulted in the undermining of the IWMA, as was apparent from its decline after 1872. What followed was a transitional period in which the old form of internationalism crumbled away. Although a new form was destined to emerge, it was still no further along at that point than the earliest embryonic stage. New forms of international labor organizations such as the International Trade Secretariats would emerge in the 1890s.

Key Players

Bakunin, Mikhail (1814-1876): Bakunin was a Russian aristocrat and revolutionary anarchist and founder of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy (1864-1874). His writings include Statism and Anarchy (1873).

Marx, Karl (1818-1883): Marx was a German communist theoretician. His writings published during his lifetime include The Poverty of Philosophy. Reply to The Philosophy of Poverty of Mr. Proudhon (Misère de la Philosophie. Réponse à La Philosophie de la misère de M. Proudhon ;1847); A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie; 1859); and Capital(Das Kapital), Volume I (1867).

Odger, George (1813?-1877): British shoemaker and trade unionist, cofounder of the London Trades Council in 1860; ran unsuccessfully for parliament five times, 1868-1874.

Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1809-1865): Proudhon was a French typographer and socialist and member of the National Assembly, 1848-1849. He imprisoned several times. His publications include What is Property? (Qu'est-ce quela propriété?; 1840) and System of Economic Contradictions or Philosophy of Poverty (Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère ; 1846).

Tolain, Henri Louis (1828-1897): French copperplate engraver, Proudhonist, and secretary/correspondent of the IWMA starting in 1865, Tolain was elected deputy in 1870, opposed the Paris Commune of 1871, and was elected senator in 1876, 1882, and 1891.

See also: Paris Commune; Red International of Labor Unions; Revolutions in Europe; Second International.



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—Marcel van der Linden

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