1902 Encyclopedia > The International (The International Working Men's Association)

The International
(The International Working Men's Association)

INTERNATIONAL. The International Working Men's Association, commonly called the "International," was formed at London in 1864. It was a society of working men of all nations, somewhat like a cosmopolitan trades union, but bearing a still closer resemblance to an international social science association for discussing and furthering the rights of labour. At first moderate in its tone, it soon began to endorse advanced views respecting property and industrial organization. Shortly after it had attained to the height of its power about 1869, it became more and more allied with the most destructive socialism of western Europe. Weakened by internal disunion, and discredited by its approval of the commune at Paris and its alliance with the communal risings in southern Spain, the International died a natural death before it was quite ten years old.

The occasion of the formation of the International was the visit of some French workmen to the London Exhibi-tion of 1862. This visit had the approval and even the pecuniary support of the emperor, and was warmly com-mended by some of the leading Parisian organs as a means, not only of acquainting them with the industrial treasures of the exhibition, but of removing from the relations of the two countries the old leaven of international discord and jealousy. In the course of their visit the French delegates were cordially welcomed at an entertainment at the Free-masons' Tavern, where the labour question was discussed, and a desire for the further interchange of ideas expressed. Nothing decisive, however, was done till 1864, when a great public meeting of working men of all nations was held at St Martin's Hall, at which Professor Beesly pre-sided. Here a provisional committee was appointed to draft the constitution of the new association. In this con-stitution, which was approved at the first congress held at Geneva in 1866, and in a remarkable address issued by the committee the aim of the International is defined in clear and able terms. It was set forth that, notwithstanding the vast development of industry and the enormous accumulation of national wealth, the lot of the working class was as hard as ever. All the recent revolutions and political reforms had been achieved only in the interest of the middle classes, leaving the position of the working man unimproved. The emancipation of the working men must be the task of the working men themselves. With this view the International was founded, which, while recogniz-ing truth, justice, and morality as the basis of its action, without distinction of creed, nationality, and colour, would serve as a common centre for the efforts of working men towards their complete deliverance from the tyranny of capital. A general council having its seat at London was appointed, which was to hold annual congresses and exer-cise a general control over the affairs of the association, while local societies were allowed free play in all local questions. The working men of a district or trade were to form a section, several sections formed a federation, and all the societies of each nation were if possible to form a national association; but all were to be in communication with the International headquarters.

The first four congresses of the International, held at Geneva (September 1866), Lausanne (1867), Brussels (1868), and Basel (1869), marked the rapid development of the association. It gained its first triumph in the effectual support of the bronze-workers at Paris during their lock-out in 1867; and it repeatedly gave real help to the English unionists by preventing the importation of cheap labour from the Continent. In the beginning of 1868 one hundred and twenty-two societies of South Germany assembled at Nuremberg declared their adhesion to the International. In 1870 Cameron announced him-self as the representative of 800,000 American workmen who had adopted its principles. It soon spread as far east as Poland and Hungary, and it had affiliated societies with journals devoted to its cause in every country of western Europe. The leading organs of the European press became more than interested in its movements; the Times published four leaders on the Brussels congress. It was supposed to be concerned in all the revolutionary move-ments and agitations of Europe, gaining a world historic notoriety as the rallying point of social overthrow and ruin. Its prestige, however, was always based more on the vast possibilities of the cause it represented than on its actual power. Its organization was loose, its financial resources insignificant; the Continental unionists joined it more in the hope of borrowing than of contributing support. At the successive congresses its socialistic tendencies became more and more pronounced; it declared its opposition to private property not only in railways but in mines and the soil, holding that these should revert to the community. Even the principle of inheritance was saved only by a narrow majority. In 1869 Bakunin the Russian socialist or nihilist with his party joined the association, and at once asserted his character as the " apostle of universal destruction."

In 1870 the International resolved to establish itself at the very hearth of the revolutionary movement by holding its annual congress at Paris. This plan was rendered abortive by the Franco-German conflict. That war, how-ever, helped to bring the principles of the association more decidedly before the world. On general grounds, and during the Austro-Prussian struggle of 1866, it had declared its emphatic condemnation of war; and now the societies of France and Germany as well as the general council at London uttered a solemn protest against this renewal of the scourge. Some of its German adherents likewise incurred the wrath of the authorities by venturing to pro-test against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. In this way the International appeared as the champion of a wider principle against the abuse of the principle of nationality.

The relation of the association to the communal rising at Paris in the spring of 1871 has been the subject of much dispute. It is now agreed that the International as such had no part either in originating or conducting it; some of its French members joined it, but only on their individual responsibility. Its complicity after the event is equally clear. After the fall of the commune the general council of London, Karl Marx included, issued a long and trenchant manifesto, approving its action and extolling the "glorious vanquished." From this point the decline and fall of the association is to be dated. The English unionists, intent on more practical concerns at home, never took a deep interest in its proceedings; the German socialists were hindered by law from corporate action; America was too remote. But it found its worst enemies amongst its own friends ; the views of Marx and his school were too moderate for the universally subversive principles of Bakunin, and the radical Swiss federation of the Jura led by Guillaume. It oame to a rupture at the congress of 1872, held at the Hague, when Bakunin, being outvoted and " excommunicated " by the Marx party, formed a rival International, which found its chief support in Spain and Italy. Wearied, of its European contentions and desirous to form a basis of operation in America, the Marx International now transferred the seat of its general council to New York; but it survived just long enough to hold another congress at Geneva in 1874, and then quietly expired. The party of destruction styling themselves "autonomists" had a bloodier history. The programme of this party was to overturn all existing institutions, with the view to reconstructing them on some vague communal basis such as had been tried at Paris in 1871. It endeavoured to realize this in the great communal risings in southern Spain in 1873, when its adherents set up their peculiar form of government at Barcelona, Seville, Cadiz, and Cartagena,— at the last-mentioned place also seizing on part of the iron-clad fleet of Spain. As at Paris, they failed in leadership and organization, and were suppressed, though not without difficulty, by the national troops. The " autonomists" lingered on till 1879. At present there is no society that has any claim to the name and prestige of the International. The collapse has thus been complete of an association which once extended from Hungary to San Francisco, and alarmed the minds of men with visions of universal ruin.

See Villetard, Histoire de VInternationale, Paris, 1871 ; Testut, L'Internationale, Paris, 1871 ; Onslow Yorke, Secret History of the International, London, 1871 ; Emile de Laveleye, Revue des Deux Mondes, April 1880 ; Professor Beesly, Fortnightly Review, 1870. (T. K.)

The above article was written by Thomas Kirkup, M.A.

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