Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx, His Life and Environment, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 161-71.
The International

The French Revolution is the precursor of another, more magnificent revolution which will be the last.

Gracchus Babeuf, Manifeste des Egaux, 1796

    The First International came into being in the most casual possible fashion. In spite of the efforts of various organisations and committees to co-ordinate the activities of the workers of various countries, no genuine ties between them had been established. This was due to several causes. Since the general character of such bodies was conspiratorial, only a small minority of radically minded, fearless and 'advanced' workers were attracted to them; moreover, it was generally the case that before anything concrete could be achieved, a foreign war, or repressive measures by governments, put an end to the existence of the secret committees. To this must be added the lack of acquaintance and sympathy between the workers of different nations, working under totally different conditions. And finally the increased economic prosperity which succeeded the years of hunger and revolt, by raising the general standard of living, automatically made for greater individualism, and stimulated the personal ambition of the bolder and more politically minded workers towards local self-improvement and the pursuit of immediate ends, and away from the comparatively nebulous ideal of an international alliance against the bourgeoisie. The development of the German workers, led by Lassalle, is a typical example of such a purely internal movement, rigorously centralised but confined to a single land, spurred on by an optimistic hope of gradually forcing the capitalist enemy to terms by the sheer weight of numbers, without having recourse to a revolutionary upheaval or violent seizure of power. This hope was encouraged by Bismarck's anti-bourgeois policy which appeared to weight the scales in favour of the workers. In France the fearful defeat of 1848-9 left the city proletariat broken and for many years incap-[161/62]able of action on a large scale, healing its wounds by forming small local associations more or less Proudhonist in inspiration. Nor were they entirely discouraged in this by the government of Napoleon III. The Emperor himself had in his youth posed as a friend of the peasants, artisans and factory workers against capitalist bureaucracy, and wished to represent his monarchy as a novel and exceedingly subtle form of government, an original blend of monarchism, republicanism and Tory democracy, a kind of new order in which political absolutism was tempered by economic liberalism; while the government, although centralised and responsible to the Emperor alone, in theory rested ultimately on the confidence of the people, and was therefore to be an entirely new and thoroughly modern institution, sensitive to novel needs, responsive to every nuance of social change.

    Part of Napoleon's elaborate policy of social conciliation was the preservation of a delicate balance of power between the classes by playing them off against each other. The workers were therefore permitted to form themselves into unions under strict police supervision, in order to offset the dangerously growing power of the financial aristocracy with its suspected Orleanist loyalties. The workers, with no alternative choice before them, accepted this cautiously outstretched official hand, and began constituting trade associations, a process half encouraged, half hampered, by the authorities.

    When the great Exhibition of Modem Industry was opened in London in 1863, French workers were given facilities for visiting it, and a selected deputation duly came to England, half tourists, half representatives of the French proletariat, theoretically sent to the Exhibition in order to study the latest industrial developments. A meeting was arranged between them and the representatives of English unions. At this meeting, which to begin with was probably as vague in intention as other gatherings of its kind, and seemed to be mainly stimulated by the desire to help Polish democrats exiled as a result of the abortive Polish uprising in that year, there arose such questions as comparative hours and wages in France and England, and the necessity of preventing employers from importing cheap blackleg labour from abroad with which to break strikes organised by local unions. Another meeting was called in order to form an association which should not be confined merely to holding discussions and comparing notes, but for the purpose of beginning active economic and political co-operation, and perhaps for the promotion of an inter-[162/63]national democratic revolution. The initiative on this occasion came not from Marx, but from the English and French labour leaders themselves. On their fringe were radicals of various kinds, Polish democrats, Italian Mazzinists, Proudhonists, Blanquists and neo-Jacobins from France and Belgium: anyone, indeed, who desired the fall of the existing order was at first freely welcomed.

    This meeting was held in Sr Martin's Hall in London, and was presided over by Edward Beesly, a charming and benevolent figure, then professor of ancient history in the University of London, a radical and a positivist, who belonged to the small bur notable group that included Frederic Harrison and Crompton, which had been deeply influenced by Comte and the early French socialists. Its members could be counted on to support every enlightened measure, and, for many years almost alone among the educated men of their time were aligned with Mill in defending the unpopular cause of trade unionism at a period when it was being denounced in the House of Commons as an instrument deliberately invented to foment ill will between the classes. The meeting resolved to constitute an international federation of working men, pledged not to reform but to destroy the prevalent system of economic relations, and to substitute in its place one in which the workers would themselves acquire the ownership of the means of production, which would put an end to their economic exploitation and cause the fruit of their labour to be communally shared -- an end that entailed the ultimate abolition of private property in all its forms. Marx, who had previously held himself coldly aloof from other gatherings of democrats, perceived the solid character of this latest attempt at combination, organised as it was by genuine workers' representatives and advertising definite and concrete purposes in which his own influence was clearly traceable. He rarely took part in any movement which he had not initiated himself. This was to be the exception. The German artisans in London appointed him their representative on the executive committee, and by the time the second meeting was held to vote the constitution, he took entire charge of the proceedings. After the French and Italian delegates, to whom the task of drafting the statutes was entrusted, had failed to produce anything but the usual faded democratic commonplaces, Marx drew them up himself, adding an inaugural address which he composed for the occasion. The constitution which, as framed by the International Committee, was vague, humanitarian, and tinged with liberalism, emerged from his [163/64] hands a boldly drawn, militant document designed to constitute a rigorously disciplined body whose members were pledged to assist each other not merely in improving their common condition, but in systematically subverting, and whenever possible overthrowing, the existing capitalist regime by open political action. In particular they were to try to enter democratic parliaments, as the followers of Lassalle were beginning to attempt to do in German countries. Upon a request being made to include some expressions of respect for 'right and duty, truth, justice and freedom' the words were inserted, but in a context in which, Marx wrote to Engels, 'they could do no possible harm'. The new constitution was passed, and Marx began to work with his customary feverish rapidity, emerging into the limelight of international activity after fifteen years, if not of obscurity, of intermittent light and darkness.

    The Inaugural Address of the international is, after the Communist Manifesto, the most remarkable document of the Socialist Movement. It occupies little over a dozen octavo pages and opens with the declaration '. . . That the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves . . . that the economic subjection of the man of labour to the monopoliser of the means of labour . . . lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms of social misery, mental degradation and political dependence. That the economic emancipation of the working class is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means. That all efforts aiming at this great end have hitherto failed from want of solidarity between the manifold divisions of labour in each country, and from the absence of a fraternal bond of union between the working classes of different countries . . . for these means the undersigned . . . have taken the steps necessary for founding the International Working Men's Association.'

    It contains a survey of the economic and social conditions of the working class from 1848, and contrasts the rapidly growing prosperity of the propertied classes with the depressed condition of the workers. 1848 is recognised as a crushing defeat for them, yet even so nor wholly without benefit to them: as a result of it, the feeling of international solidarity among workers had awoken. This development had made agitation for the legal limitation of the working day not entirely unsuccessful -- the first definite victory over a policy of extreme laissez-faire. The cooperative movement had proved that high industrial efficiency [164/65] was compatible with, and even increased by, the elimination of the capitalist slave-driver: wage labour had thus been demonstrated to be not a necessary but a transient and eradicable evil. The workers were at last beginning to grasp that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by listening to their capitalist advisers who, whenever they could not use force, sought to play on national and religious prejudices, on personal or local interests, on the profound political ignorance of the masses. Whoever might gain by national or dynastic wars, it was the workers on both sides who always lost. Yet their strength was such that by common action they could prevent this exploitation in peace as in war: as, indeed, their success in intervening in England against the sending of help to the Southern states in the American civil war had proved. Against the formidable and in appearance overwhelming power of their enemy they had only one weapon -- their numbers,'bur numbers weigh in the scales only when they are united and organised and led consciously towards a single aim'. It was in the political field that their slavery was most manifest. To hold aloof from politics in the name of economic organisation, as Proudhon and Bakunin taught, was criminal short-sightedness; they would obtain justice only if they upheld it, if necessary by force, wherever they saw it trampled upon. Even if they could not intervene with armed force, they could at least protest and demonstrate and harass their governments, until the supreme standards of morality and justice, by which relations between individuals were conventionally judged, became the laws governing relations between nations. But this could not be done without altering the existing economic structure of society which, in spite of minor improvements, necessarily worked for the degradation and enslavement of the working class. There was only one class in whose real interest it was to arrest this downward trend and remove the possibility of its occurrence: that was the class which, possessing nothing, was bound by no ties of Interest or sentiment to the old world of injustice or misery -- the class which was as much the invention of the new age as machinery itself: The Address ended, like the Communist Manifesto, with the words, 'Workers of the world unite!'

    The tasks of the new organisation, as embodied in this document, were: to establish close relations between the workers of various countries and trades; to collect relevant statistics; to inform the workers of one country of the conditions, needs and the plans of the workers of another; to discuss questions of [165/66] common interest; to secure co-ordinated simultaneous action in all countries in the event of international crises; to publish regular reports on the work of the associations, and the like. It was to meet in annual congresses and would be convened by a democratically elected general council in which all affiliated countries would be represented. Marx left the constitution as elastic as he could, in order to be able to include as many active workers' organisations as possible, however disparate their methods and character. At first he resolved to act cautiously and with moderation, to bind and unify, and eliminate dissidents gradually, as a greater measure of agreement was progressively reached. He carried out his policy precisely as he had planned it. Its consequences proved self-destructive, although it is difficult to see what other tactics Marx could have adopted consistently with his principles.

    The international grew rapidly. Union after union of workers in the principal countries of Europe was converted by the prospect of united warfare for higher wages, shorter hours and political representation: it was far better organised than either Chartism or the earlier communist leagues had ever been, partly because tactical lessons had been learnt. Independent activity on the part of individuals was suppressed, popular oratory was discouraged, and rigid discipline in all departments was introduced, mainly because it was led and dominated by a single personality. The only man who might have attempted to rival Marx in the early years was Lassalle, and he was dead; even so, the spell of his legend was strong enough to insulate the Germans against full support of the London centre. Liebknecht, a man of mediocre talent, boundlessly devoted to Marx, preached the new creed with enthusiasm and skill, but the continuation of Bismarck's anti-socialist policy, and the tradition of nationalism derived from Lassalle, kept the German workers' activity within the frontiers of their country, pre-occupied with problems of internal organisation. As for Bakunin, that great disturber of men's spirits had lately returned to Western Europe after a romantic escape from Siberia, but while his personal prestige, both in the International and outside it, was immense, he had no organised following: he had drifted away from Herzen and the liberal agrarian party among the Russian émigrés, and no one knew whither he was tending, least of all he himself. In common with the great majority of Proudhonists he and his followers became members of the International, but since it was openly committed to political [166/67] action, they did so in defiance of their somewhat vaguely formulated anarchist principles. The most enthusiastic members at this time were English and French trade unionists, who were temporarily under the spell of the new experiment with its vast promise of prosperity and power; they were no theorists, nor wished to be, and left all such questions to the General Council of the international. While this mood lasted, Marx had no serious rivals in the organisation, being altogether superior in intellect, revolutionary experience, and strength of will, to the odd amalgam of professional men, factory workers and stray ideologists who, with the addition of one or two dubious adventurers, composed the First International Working Men's Association.

    Marx was now forty-six years of age and in appearance and habits prematurely old. Of his seven children three were dead, largely as a result of the material conditions of the life led by the family in their rooms in Soho: they had contrived to move to a more spacious house in Kentish Town, although they were still almost destitute. The great economic crisis, the severest yet experienced in Europe, which began in 1857, was warmly welcomed both by him and by Engels as likely to breed discontent and rebellion, but it also curtailed Engels's income, and so struck a blow at Marx himself at a moment when he could least afford it. The New York Tribune and occasional contributions to radical German newspapers saved him from literal starvation; but the margin by which the family survived was for twenty years perilously thin. By 1860 even the American source began to fail; the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, a fervent supporter of democratic nationalism found himself in growing disagreement with his European correspondent's sharply worded views. The economic crisis, and the added effect of the civil war, led to the dismissal of many of the Tribune's European correspondents: Dana pleaded to be allowed to retain Marx, but in vain. He was gradually edged out of his post during the beginning of 1861; the association finally ended a year later. As for the International, it added to his duties and enlivened his existence, but did not add to his income. In despair he applied for a post of booking clerk in a railway office, but his tattered clothes and his menacing appearance were unlikely to produce a favourable impression on a potential employer of clerical labour, and his application was finally rejected on account of his illegible handwriting. it is difficult to sec how, without the support of Engels, he and his family could have survived at all during these fearful years. [167/68]

    Meanwhile branches of the International had been established in Italy and Spain; by the mid-sixties governments began to grow frightened; there was talk of arrests and proscriptions; the French Emperor made a half-hearted attempt to suppress it. This only served to heighten the fame and the prestige of the new body among the workers. For Marx, after the dark tunnel of the fifties, this was once more life and activity. The work of the International consumed his nights and days. With the customary devoted help of Engels he took personal possession of the central office, and acted not only as its semi-dictatorial adviser, but as the central drafting office and clearing-house of all correspondence. Everything passed through his hands and moved in the direction which he gave it. The French, a portion of the Swiss, to some degree the Belgian, and later the Italian sections, bred on the anti-authoritarianism of Proudhon and Bakunin, made vague but unavailing protests. Marx, who enjoyed complete ascendancy over the Council, tightened his hold still further: he insisted on rigid conformity to every point of the original programme. His old energy seemed to return. He wrote spirited, almost gay letters to Engels; even his theoretical works bear the imprint of this newly found vigour, and as often happens, intense work in one field stimulated dormant activity in another. A sketch of his economic theory had appeared in 1859: but his major work, which poverty and ill-health had interrupted, now at last began to near its end.

    Marx made few personal appearances at the meetings of the congress of the international: he preferred to control its activities from London, where he regularly attended the meetings of the General Council and issued detailed instructions to his followers on it. As always he trusted and relied almost entirely on Germans: he found a faithful mouthpiece in an elderly tailor named Eccarius, long resident in England, a man not burdened with excess of intelligence or imagination, but one who seemed to him dependable and thorough. Eccarius, like the majority of Marx's underlings, eventually revolted, and joined the secessionists, but for eight years, as secretary to the Council of the international, he carried out Marx's instructions to the letter. Annual congresses were held in London, Geneva, Lausanne, Brussels, Basle, at which general problems were discussed and definite measures voted upon; common decisions were adopted with regard to hours and wages; such questions as the position of women and children, the type of political and economic pressure most suitable to differing [168/69] conditions in various European countries, the possibility of collaboration with other bodies, were considered. Marx's chief concern was to arrive at a clear formulation of a concrete international policy in terms of specific demands co-ordinated with each other, and the creation of a rigorous discipline which guaranteed undeviating adhesion to this policy. He therefore successfully resisted all offers of alliance with such purely humanitarian bodies as the League of Peace and Freedom, then newly founded under the aegis of Mazzini, Bakunin and John Stuart Mill. This dictatorial policy was bound, sooner or later, to lead to discontent and rebellion; it crystallised round Bakunin, whose conception of a loose federation of semi-independent local bodies began to gain adherents in the Swiss and Italian sections of the international, and to a lesser extent in France. Finally they resolved to constitute themselves, under Bakunin's leadership, into a body to be called the Democratic Alliance, affiliated to the International, but with an internal organisation of its own pledged to resist centralisation and to support federal autonomy. This was a heresy which even a more tolerant man than Marx could not afford to overlook: the International was not intended to be a mere correspondence society between a loose association of radical committees, but a unified political party pressing for a single end in all the centres of its dispersion. He believed firmly that any connection with Bakunin -- or indeed any Russian -- was bound to end by badly betraying the working class, a view which he had acquired after his brief and enjoyable flirtation, and subsequent disillusionment, with the aristocratic Russian radicals of the forties. As for Bakunin, while he professed sincerely enough to admire Marx's personal genius, he never concealed either his personal antipathy for him, or his rooted loathing of Marx's belief in authoritarian methods, expressed both in his theories and in his practical organisation of the revolutionary party.

    'We, revolutionary anarchists,' Bakunin declared, 'are the enemies of all forms of state and stare organisation . . . we think that all state rule, all governments, being by their very nature placed outside the mass of the people, must necessarily seek to subject it to customs and purposes entirely foreign to it. We therefore declare ourselves to be foes . . . of all state organisations as such, and believe that the people can only be happy and free, when, organised from below by means of its own autonomous completely free associations, without the supervision of any guardians, it will create its own life. [169/70]

    'We believe power corrupts those who wield it as much as those who are forced to obey it. Under its corrosive influence, some become greedy and ambitious tyrants, exploiting society in their own interest, or in that of their class, while others are turned into abject slaves. Intellectuals, positivists, doctrinaires, all those who put science before life . . . defend the idea of the state and its authority as being the only possible salvation of society -- quite logically, since from their false premise that thought comes before life, that only abstract theory can form the starting-point of social practice . . . they draw the inevitable conclusion that since such theoretical knowledge is at present possessed by very few, these few must be put in control of social life, not only to inspire, but to direct all popular movements, and that no sooner is the revolution over than a new social organisation must at once be set up; not a free association of popular bodies . . . working in accordance with the needs and instincts of the people, but a centralised dictatorial power concentrated in the hands of this academic minority, as if they really expressed the popular will . . . The difference between such revolutionary dictatorship and the modern state is only one of external trappings. In substance both are a tyranny of the minority over the majority in the name of the people -- in the name of the stupidity of the many and the superior wisdom of the few -- and so they are equally reactionary, devising to secure political and economic privilege to the ruling minority, and the . . . enslavement of the masses, to destroy the present order only to erect their own rigid dictatorship on its ruins.'

    Bakunin's attacks on Marx and Lassalle could not pass unnoticed, the more so because they were tinged by antisemitism, for which his friend Herzen more than once had occasion to reproach him. And yet, when in 1869 Herzen begged him to leave the international, he wrote, with a characteristic burst of magnanimity, that he could not join the opponents of a man 'who has served [the cause of socialism] for twenty-five years with insight, energy, and disinterestedness in which he undoubtedly excelled us all'.

    Marx's dislike of Bakunin did not blind him to the need for conceding a certain measure of regional independence for motives of sheer expediency. Thus he successfully foiled the plan to create international trade unions because he believed that this was premature and would lead to an immediate rift with the existing, nationally organised, trade unions from which, at any rate in England, the chief support of the International was drawn. But if [170/71] he made this concession, he did so not for love of federalism as such, but solely not to endanger what had already been built up, an organisation without which he could not create a body the existence of which would make the workers conscious that there stood behind their demands, not, as in 1848, merely sympathisers here and there, prepared to offer moral support or at best occasional contributions -- but a well-disciplined, militant force pledged to resist, and when necessary, intimidate and coerce their own governments unless justice were done to their brothers everywhere.

    In order to create the permanent possibility of such active solidarity in theory and In practice, a central body in undisputed authority, a kind of general staff responsible for strategy and tactics, seemed to him indispensable. Bakunin, by his attempts to loosen the structure of the international and to encourage varieties of opinion in the local sections, appeared to him to be deliberately aiming to destroy this possibility if he were successful, it would mean the loss of what had been won, a return to Utopianism, the disappearance of the new sober outlook, of the realisation that the sole strength of the workers lay in unity, that what delivered them into the hands of their enemies in 1848 was the fact that they were engaged in scattered risings, sporadic emotional outbursts of violence, instead of a single carefully concerted revolution, organised to begin at a moment chosen for its historical appropriateness, directed from a common source and to a common end by men who had accurately studied the situation and their own and their enemy s strength. Bakuninism led to the dissipation of the revolutionary impulse, to the old romantic, noble, futile heroism, rich in saints and martyrs, but crushed only too easily by the more realistic enemy, and necessarily followed by a period of weakness and disillusionment likely to set the movement back for many decades. Marx did not underestimate Bakunin's revolutionary energy and power to stir men's imaginations: indeed, it was for this reason that he regarded him as a dangerously disruptive force likely to breed chaos wherever he went. The workers' cause would rest on volcanic soil if he and his followers were allowed to irrupt into the ranks of its defenders. Hence after some years of desultory skirmishing, he decided upon an open attack. It ended with the excommunication of Bakunin and his followers from the ranks of the International.