Vol. XLII No. 48 December 02, 2018

Birth of the First International-XX

IN 1861 Marx went to Berlin to establish contacts with German workers’ organisations and explore the possibility of starting a workers’ newspaper as a successor to the two Rhenish papers. A proposal to this effect was made to him by Ferdinand Lassalle, a German lawyer, writer and leader of the workers’ movement.           

To Marx’s great regret the plan did not materialise because of the attitude and personality of Lassalle himself. Lassalle called himself a disciple of Marx and Engels, but in reality he never accepted the principles of the revolutionary doctrine, remaining an idealist and reformist in both theory and practice. These qualities, compounded by his excessive vanity and claims to be the unquestioned leader, made it impossible for Marx to collaborate with him in putting out a revolutionary paper.

Equally unsuccessful was Marx’s attempt to get himself reinstated as a Prussian subject so as to be able freely to enter the country and live there. The authorities turned down his request on the ground that he was a “republican”. Since Marx himself could not return to Germany freely, it was all the more important to know loyal comrades-in-arms in the homeland. Wilhelm Liebknecht was for a long time to be the most important of these comrades working in Germany.

By the autumn of 1862, there was a growing desire among the most advanced German workers, especially in Berlin and Leipzig, to call an all-German workers’ congress to work out the social and political goals of the proletariat. In May 1863 the German workers’ Association was founded in Leipzig and Lassalle was elected its President.


For the first time, after more than a decade of darkest reaction, there again existed a workers’ organisation in Germany independent of the bourgeoisie. Not only the class-conscious workers, but the intellectuals also found new hope and placed themselves on the side, or among the ranks, of the workers’ movement.

Lassalle knew the writings of Marx and Engels better than most others and described himself frequently as their pupil supporter. But he had never actually comprehended the wealth of ideas of the Marxist teachings, especially their foundation, philosophical materialism. In his conception of history and the State, he remained an idealist. He did not believe that the working class had the historical mission of erecting a new, Socialist society through the conquest of political power.

Instead of the destruction of the bourgeois State, Lassalle considered its reform to be the task of the working class. He also wanted to reform the Prussian State through the introduction of equal rights to the secret ballot—that is strictly along parliamentary lines—and through credits which the Prussian Janker-State, so he proposed, would give to the workers to build up production cooperatives.

Lassalle’s contribution to the creation once again of a workers’ organisation independent of the bourgeoisie, the General German Workers’ Association, was Positive; but his illusion that the working class did not need to engage in a revolutionary struggle and would “peacefully grow” into Socialism with the help of the exploiters’ State had a destructive influence.

Out of these petty-bourgeois and non-proletarian ideas Lassalle developed a whole system of false conceptions which later became known historically as Lassalleanism. For example, he dismissed the economic struggle of the workers and thereby also the trade union movement. He disdained the allies of the proletariat, the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie. He did not believe that the fight for the emancipation of the working class had an international character.


But the most harmful consequences for the working class of Germany resulted from Lasslle’s intrigues. On the one hand, he negotiated secretly with Bismarck, the newly-named Prussian Prime Minister, from the standpoint that the unification of Germany should be based on Prussia. On the other hand, he sought to divert the German Workers’ Association away from the revolutionary democratic road to national unity, to a pro-Prussian tactic.

In this manner Lassalle prevented the rising workers’ movement in the 1860s from becoming the decisive force in the struggle for the democratic unification of Germany. His theories, which he imposed on the Workers’ Association, made Lassalleanism from then on the main obstacle to the penetration of scientific Communism into the German workers’ movement. Lassalle made a point of utllising the authority of the authors of the Communist Manifesto, but had disdained the views and expedience of the Manifesto and the Communist League in the founding of the Workers’ Association. He had thus kept the Association from developing into a revolutionary proletarian party such as the Communist League had been.

Marx very much welcomed the political and organisational separation of the workers from the bourgeoisie. But he was equally scandalised by the fact that Lassalle considered it proper to intrigue with the bitterest enemy of the German workers and the whole nation, the Prussian military State. “The Lassalle business and the scandals it is creating in Germany are getting to be unpleasant”. Engels wrote to Marx in May 1863. “It is high time for you to finish your book”. Both were agreed that now it was especially necessary to influence the workers with new scientific and political workers. For Marx that meant, above all, the completion of his chief work, Das Kapital, on which he had again been working intensively since the middle of 1861. At the same time he occupied himself ever more deeply with the workers’ movement in other European countries.


Marx ranged himself most ardently behind the struggle of the Polish people who, since the beginning of 1863, had once more risen against the tsarist rule. In August of that year, when a delegation of Polish patriots visited him, he immediately promised them moral and material help. In London, he arranged for the Communist Workers’ Educational Association to head the solidarity action for the Polish patriots.                                            

“The Polish question is the German question. Without an independent Poland, there will be no independent, united Germany”, Marx wrote in a leaflet distributed by the Association. Fifty copies of the leaflet were sent to Liebknecht in Berlin, so that the appeal could be distributed among the German workers also.

Marx declared to the German workers: “In this fateful moment, the German working class owes the Poles, the world and its own honour, loud protest against the German betrayal of Poland, which is at the same time a betrayal of Germany and Europe. It must write the reconstitution of Poland on its banner in letters of fire.” He spread the concept of proletarian internationalism among them and awakened in them the awareness that they were the trustees of Germany’s national interests. The progressive English and French workers also placed themselves behind the Polish patriots.


This great movement of the European working class promoted by Marx created the preconditions for the establishment of an international workers’ organisation. The workers’ movements in various countries of Europe were once again strong enough so that, as Engels later wrote: “Marx could entertain the idea of relishing a long cherished wish : the foundation of a Workers’ Association embracing the most advanced countries of Europe and America, which would demonstrate bodily, so to speak, the international character of the Socialist movement both to the workers themselves and to the bourgeoisies and  the Government—for the encouragement and strengthening of the proletariat, for striking into the hearts of its enemies”.

The appropriate moment arrived in 1864. The great English trade union federations had,          in 1863, invited representatives of the French workers’ organisations to attend an international meeting in London on behalf of the Polish uprising. It had been agreed to repeat this international act of solidarity in 1864. The workers of other nations now also promised to take part, including the Communist Workers’ Educational Association, whose members were mostly German proletarians. The English labour leaders requested specifically that Karl Marx, who enjoyed great prestige among them, should also attend this manifestation of international workingmen’s fraternity.

In the evening of September 28, 1864, hundreds of English, French, German, Polish, Italian and Swiss workers and democratic emigrees assembled in St. Martin’s Hall. The hall was filled to the rafters. Marx, as the representative of the German workers, sat on the platform alongside the delegates of the French working men, the English trade union leaders, the representatives and revolutionary democrats of other nations.

The audience reacted with enthusiastic approval to a message of solidarity from the English to the French workers, and to the reply from the French workers. A representative of the French workers reported on how his class comrades foresaw an international organisation of the proletariat. An English trade union leader summed up the view put forward during the evening by numerous speakers among whom was the German Communist, Eccarius. Marx did not speak on behalf of the German workers, but had himself proposed Eccarius to the preparatory committee and had helped him draft his address.

All the speakers recognised the common interests of the workers of all lands in the struggle for democratic freedom, national independence and social progress. The meeting enthusiastically adopted a decision to set up an International Workingmen’s Association to defend the common interests of the working class. The First International was born. Marx was elected to the Committee, subsequently known as the Central Council, and then the General Council.

Thus the man who had prepared the way for this joining of forces, Karl Marx, was now also a personal witness and participant in the founding conference of the International Workingmen’s Association.