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The lessons for today of the First International

This month Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School commemorates the 150th anniversary of the founding in London on September 28 1864 of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA). 

The world’s first workers’ international, its proceedings and developments through eight turbulent years until its final dissolution following the brutal repression in 1871 of the Paris Commune — the world’s first attempt at working-class government — deserve proper understanding and the widest possible discussion among trade unionists and socialists today. 

We invite Morning Star readers to join us for a series of talks exploring the lessons of the First International. 

Though not Marx’s initiative, the creation of the International demonstrated the truth of the materialist conception of history he expressed in the preface to his 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” 

Shoemaker George Odger, carpenter William Cremer and mason George Howell, leaders of the recently formed London Trades Council, were motivated to contact French workers’ representatives to confront the problem of low-paid workers being imported into England from the continent as strike-breakers — a common tactic of 19th-century employers. 

It does not take a giant imaginative leap to see the parallels to the political battle between capital and labour today over the use and abuse of migrant labour. While capital moves freely, labour is coralled and class solidarity undermined in a process that divides workers and super-exploits those escaping desperate conditions in the hope of a better life.

In July 1863 at a meeting called by London Trades Council to support Polish national independence, Odger proposed “regular and systematic communication between the industrious classes of all countries” as the solution to employers’ strike-breaking using “free movement” of labour. 

On September 28 1864 at St Martin’s Hall on the corner of St Martin’s Lane and Long Acre a 2,000-strong public meeting agreed to form the IWMA. 

Men such as Odger, Cremer and Howell were certainly not communists. Their main political demand was to win male suffrage. Indeed Cremer went on to become a Liberal MP. 

Nevetheless, just as Marx had brilliantly predicted 16 years earlier in The Communist Manifesto: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — bourgeoisie and proletariat.” 

Capitalist economic and political development called for an international association of workers. The representatives of the British working class, the world’s most developed industrial proletariat in that time, were simply the instruments that brought the First International into existence. 

Marx himself in 1864 was in poor health, having just completed writing all four volumes of Capital. 

Cremer invited Marx to attend the inaugural meeting to provide a link with German workers’ organisations and to offset the dominance of English and French workers’ representatives.

Marx drafted the IWMA inaugural address, which he described charmingly as “a sort of review of the adventures of the working classes since 1845” as well as the provisional rules. 

In his role as corresponding secretary for the IWMA’s German sections, Marx was able to develop and clarify the key political arguments that characterised the working-class movements of the 19th and 20th centuries and which still mark our present century. 

The scientific understanding of capitalist expropriation expressed by Marx in the theory of surplus value was the subject of his 1865 paper to the IWMA general council. Value, Price and Profit was written to correct John Weston, a leading English trade unionist described by Marx thus: “A good old fellow, an old Owenist, Weston (carpenter) has put forward the two following propositions, which he is continually defending in the Beehive: (1) that a general rise in the rate of wages would be of no use to workers; (2) that therefore, the trade unions have a harmful effect.”

Marx’s confrontations with all manner of radical — and reactionary — bourgeois ideas held by followers of Mazzini, Proudhon, Bakunin and Lassalle occupied much of the IWMA proceedings. 

They also prefigured later disputes between Lenin and Kautsky over reformism, which led to the split in the Second International when German social democrats voted for war credits in 1914. 

The crucial development of Marx’s own understanding of imperialism is clear from the IWMA’s discussion of the Irish question and the role of the English working class. 

In 1848 Engels had presented Irish liberation as a by-product of an English revolution. 

By 1868 Marx was clear that the Irish national struggle was the determining factor in any future English revolution. 

The anatomy of future working-class struggles for self-government and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” are described in what David Fernbach calls “the most crucial political text of Marx’s later years,” The Civil War in France. 

All of these critical debates will be re-examined and discussed in a series of evening talks beginning tonight with Harsev Bains of the Indian Workers Association (GB) on the First International: Marx, Engels and the IWMA. 

All talks are free and open to members of the public and take place at Marx House, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU beginning at 7pm.


Alex Gordon is chair of Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School. 


For the full details of the IWMA talks visit


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