Marx's Political Militancy at the Time of the International Working Men’s Association

I. Marx's Contribution to the International

The International Working Men’s Association - founded in London on September 28, 1864 - was an organization with several different political currents that were able to coexist with each other. Reformist trade unionists from England, French mutualists inspired by the theories of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, anticapitalists, and a variety of other groups, including those who were influenced by the ideas of 'utopian' socialists, participated for eight intense years to develop the first transnational political experience of the labour movement[i].

To secure cohabitation of all these currents in the same organization, around a programme so distant from the approaches with which each had started out, was Karl Marx’s great accomplishment. His political talents enabled him to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable, ensuring that the International did not swiftly follow the many previous workers’ associations down the path to oblivion. It was Marx who gave a clear purpose to the International, and Marx too who achieved a non-exclusionary, yet firmly class-based, political programme that won it a mass character beyond all sectarianism. The political soul of its General Council was always Marx: he drafted all its main resolutions and prepared all its congress reports.

Marx was also the author of the Inaugural Address and of the Provisional Statutes of the International. In these fundamental texts, as in many others that followed, Marx firmly linked economic and political struggle to each other, and made international thinking and international action an irreversible choice. It was mainly thanks to Marx’s capacities that the International developed its function of political synthesis, unifying the various national contexts in a project of common struggle that recognized their significant autonomy, but not total independence, from the directive centre. The maintenance of unity was gruelling at times, especially as Marx’s anticapitalism was never the dominant political position within the organization. Over time, however, partly through his own tenacity, partly through occasional splits, Marx’s thought became the hegemonic doctrine. It was hard going, but the effort of political elaboration benefited considerably from the struggles of those years. The character of workers’ mobilizations, the antisystemic challenge of the Paris Commune, the unprecedented task of holding together such a large and complex organization, the successive polemics with other tendencies in the workers’ movement on various theoretical and political issues:  all this impelled Marx beyond the limits of political economy alone, which had absorbed so much of his attention since the defeat of the 1848 revolution and the ebbing of the most progressive forces.

He was also stimulated to develop and sometimes revise his ideas, to put old certainties up for discussion and ask himself new questions, and in particular to sharpen his critique of capitalism by drawing the broad outlines of a communist society. The old orthodox view of Marx’s role in the International,  according to which he mechanically applied to the stage of history a political theory he had already forged in the confines of his study, is thus totally divorced from reality.

In one of the key political-organizational documents of the International, Marx summarized its functions as follows: “It is the business of the International Working Men's Association to combine and generalize the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever”[ii]. Despite the considerable autonomy granted to federations and local sections, the International always retained a locus of political leadership. Its General Council was the body that worked out a unifying synthesis on a wide range of issues, such as: working conditions, the effects of new machinery, support for strikes, the role and importance of trade unions, the Irish question, various foreign policy matters, and, of course, how to build the society of the future.

II. The Victory Over The Mutualists

In September 1866, the city of Geneva hosted the first congress of the International. Those taking part in the congress essentially divided into two blocs. The first, consisting of the British delegates, the few Germans and a majority of the Swiss, followed the directives of the General Council drawn up by Marx (who was not present in Geneva). The second, comprising the French delegates and some of the French-speaking Swiss, was made up of mutualists. At that time, in fact, moderate positions were prevalent in the International, and the mutualists envisaged a society in which the worker would be at once producer, capitalist and consumer. They regarded the granting of free credit as a decisive measure for the transformation of society; considered  women’s labour to be objectionable from both an ethical and a social point of view; and opposed any interference by the state in work relations (including legislation to reduce the working day to eight hours) on the grounds that it would threaten the private relationship between workers and employers and strengthen the system currently in force.

Basing themselves on resolutions prepared by Marx, the General Council leaders succeeded in marginalizing the numerically strong contingent of mutualists  at the congress, and obtained votes in favour of state intervention. On the latter issue, in the Instructions for Delegates of the Provisional General Council, Marx had spelled things out clearly:

This can only be effected by converting social reason into social force, and, under given circumstances, there exists no other method of doing so, than through general laws, enforced by the power of the state. In enforcing such laws, the working class do not fortify governmental power. On the contrary, they transform that power, now used against them, into their own agency. They effect by a general act what they would vainly attempt by a multitude of isolated individual efforts[iii].

Furthermore, the instructions that Marx wrote for the Geneva congress underline the basic function of trade unions against which not only the mutualists but also certain followers of Robert Owen in Britain and of Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany had taken a stand: "This activity of the Trades’ Unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts. On the contrary, it must be generalized by the formation and the combination of Trades’ Unions throughout all countries"[iv].

In the same document, Marx did not spare the existing unions his criticism. For they were  "too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital [and had] not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself. They therefore kept too much aloof from general social and political movements"[v].

Thus, for all the difficulties bound up with the diversity of nationalities, languages and political cultures, the International managed to achieve unity and coordination across a wide range of organizations and spontaneous struggles. Its greatest merit was to demonstrate the absolute need for class solidarity and international cooperation, moving decisively beyond the partial character of the initial objectives and strategies. From 1867 on, strengthened by success in achieving these goals, by increased membership and by a more efficient organization, the International made advances all over Continental Europe.

For four years the mutualists were a significant wing of the International. Marx undoubtedly played a key role in the long struggle to reduce Proudhon’s influence in the International. Marx's ideas were fundamental to the theoretical development of its leaders, and he showed a remarkable capacity to assert them by winning every major conflict inside the organization. With regard to the cooperation (one of the key point of Proudhon), for example, in the 1866 Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council. The Different Question, he had recommended to the workers “to embark in cooperative production rather than in cooperative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork”[vi].

The Brussels Congress, held in September 1868, finally clipped the wings of the mutualists. The highpoint came when the assembly approved César De Paepe’s proposal on the socialization of the means of production – a decisive step forward in defining the economic basis of socialism, no longer simply in the writings of particular intellectuals but in the programme of a great transational organization. As regards to landed property, it was agreed that: "that the economical development of modern society will create the social necessity of converting arable land into the common property of society, and of letting the soil on behalf of the state to agricultural companies under conditions analagous to those stated in regard to mines and railways"[vii].

Finally, some interesting points were made about the environment: "Considering that the abandonment of forests to private individuals causes the destruction of woods necessary for the conservation of springs, and, as a matter of course, of the good qualities of the soil, as well as the health and lives of the population, the Congress thinks that the forests ought to remain the property of society"[viii].

In Brussels, then, the International made its first clear pronouncement on the socialization of the means of production by state authorities. This marked an important victory for the General Council and the first appearance of socialist principles in the political programme of a major workers’ organization.

The resolutions of the Brussels Congress on landed property were reaffirmed at the Basel Congress held in September 1869. Eleven of the French even approved a new text which declared that society has the right to abolish individual ownership of the land and to make it part of the community. After Basel, in the International France was no longer mutualist.

III. The Importance of the Political Party after the Paris Commune      

After the German victory at Sedan and the capture of Bonaparte, the people of Paris turned against Adolphe Thiers and, on 18 March 1871, initiated the first great political event in the life of the workers’ movement: the Paris Commune. But during the “bloody week” (21-28 May 1871), some ten thousand Communards were killed in fighting or summarily executed; it was the bloodiest massacre in French history. Another 43,000 or more were taken prisoner, 13,500 of whom were subsequently sentenced to death, imprisonment, forced labour or deportation. From now on, the International was at the eye of the storm, held to blame for every act against the established order. “When the great conflagration took place at Chicago,” Marx mused with bitter irony, “the telegraph round the world announced it as the infernal deed of the International; and it is really wonderful that to its demoniacal agency has not been attributed the hurricane ravaging the West Indies”[ix].

Nevertheless, insurrectionary Paris fortified the workers’ movement, impelling it to adopt more radical positions and to intensify its militancy.  The experience showed that revolution was possible, that the goal could and should be to build a society utterly different from the capitalist order, but also that, in order to achieve this, the workers would have to create durable and well-organized forms of political association. These ideas were introduced in the statutes of the organization at the London Conference of September 1871. One of the resolution passed there stated:

that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; that this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes; and that the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists[x].

The conclusion was clear: “the economic movement [of the working class] and its political action are indissolubly united”[xi].

Whereas the Geneva Congress of 1866 established the importance of trade unions, the London Conference of 1871 shifted the focus to the other key instrument of the modern workers’ movement: the political party. For Marx, the self-emancipation of the working class required a long and arduous process – the polar opposite of the theories and practices in Sergei Nechaev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, whose advocacy of secret societies was condemned by the delegates in London, but enthusiastically supported by Mikhail Bakunin.

For all the accompanying claims of utility, the London turn was seen by many as crass interference. Not only the groups linked to Bakunin but most of the federations and local sections regarded the principle of autonomy and respect for the diverse realities making up the International as one of the cornerstones of the International. This miscalculation on Marx’s part accelerated the crisis of the organization.

The final battle between 'centralists' and 'autonomists' came at The Hague Congress, in September 1872. The crucial importance of the event impelled Marx to attend in person, accompanied by Engels. In fact, it was the only congress of the organization in which he took part. All the sessions of the congress were marked by irreducible antagonism between the two camps, and the approval of the resolutions was possible only because of its  distorted composition. Anyway, after this moment, the party was considered essential for the struggle of the proletariat: it had to be independent of all existing political forces and to be built, both programmatically and organizationally, in accordance with the national context.

IV. The International's Contribution to Marx

The outcome of the London Conference and of the Hague Congress significantly aggravated the internal crisis, by failing to take account of the prevailing moods or to display the foresight needed to avoid the strengthening of Bakunin and his group. It proved a Pyrrhic victory for Marx – one which, in attempting to resolve internal conflicts, ended up accentuating them. It remains the case, however, that the decisions taken in London only speeded up a process that was already under way and impossible to reverse.

In addition to all these historical and organizational considerations, there were others of no lesser weight regarding the chief protagonist. As Marx had reminded delegates at a session of the London Conference in 1871, “the work of the Council had become immense, obliged as it was to tackle both general questions and national questions”[xii]. It was no longer the tiny organization of 1864 walking on an English and a French leg; it was now present in all European countries, each with its particular problems and characteristics. Not only was the organization everywhere wracked by internal conflicts, but the arrival of the Communard exiles in London, with new preoccupations and a variegated baggage of ideas, made it still more arduous for the General Council to perform its task of political synthesis.

Marx was sorely tried after eight years of intense activity for the International.  Aware that the workers’ forces were on the retreat following the defeat of the Paris Commune – the most important fact of the moment for him – he therefore resolved to devote the years ahead to the attempt to complete Capital. When he crossed the North Sea to the Netherlands, he must have felt that the battle awaiting him would be his last major one as a direct protagonist.

From the mute figure he had cut at that first meeting in St. Martin’s Hall in 1864, he had become recognized as the leader of the International not only by congress delegates and the General Council but also by the wider public. Thus, although the International certainly owed a very great deal to Marx, it had also done much to change his life. Before its foundation, he had been known only in small circles of political activists. Later, and above all after the Paris Commune – as well as the publication of his magnum opus in 1867, of course – his fame spread among revolutionaries in many European countries, to the point where the press referred to him as the “red terror doctor”. The responsibility deriving from his role in the International – which allowed him to experience up close so many economic and political struggles – was a further stimulus for his reflections on communism and profoundly enriched the whole of his anticapitalist theory.


[i] For a more exentise examination of the International - and for an anthology of its most relevant resolutions and documents - see Marcello Musto, 'Introduction', in Musto (ed.), Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later, New York/London: Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 1-68.

[ii] Marx, ‘Resolutions of the Geneva Congress (1866)’, in Musto (ed.), Workers Unite!, op. cit., p. 85.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Karl Marx, ‘Resolutions of the Brussels Congress (1868)’, in Musto (ed.), Workers Unite!, op. cit., p. 92.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Karl Marx, Report of the General Council to the Fifth Annual Congress of the International.

[x] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘On the Political Action of the Working Class and Other Matters’, in Musto (ed.), Workers Unite!, op. cit., p. 285.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Karl Marx, 22 September 1872, in Premiére International, vol. II, p. 217.


The German version was first published in „Marxte noch mal?“ – LuXemburg 2-3/2017