Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chapter Four: The International Workingmen's Association (1864-1876)

4. The International Workingmen's Association (1864-1876)

Frederich A. Sorge, General Secretary

of the United States sections of the

International Workingmen's Association
The International Workingmen's
Association was founded in London on September 28, 1864. Its leading
organizer and political leader was Karl Marx. The I.W.A. was formed
during a period of rising political struggle in Europe and the United
States. It was the first international organization of the rapidly
growing trade union and socialist movements of the period, the first
great realization of Marx's famous slogan, "Workingmen of all countries,
unite!" The I.W.A. was committed to a program of the complete
emancipation of the working class. Engels described it as "an
association of workingmen embracing the most progressive countries of
Europe and America, and concretely demonstrating the international
character of the socialist movement to the workingmen themselves as well
as to the capitalists and governments."1

The Marxists began to build the I.W.A.
in the United States shortly after the Civil War, in 1867. Section No.
1, formed in 1869, was an amalgamation of the German General Workers
Union and the Communist Club of New York. The combined group was called
the Social Party of New York. Toward the end of 1870 two additional
sections, French and Bohemian, were set up. These first three sections
established the North American Federation of the I.W.A., with F. A.
Sorge as corresponding secretary of the Central Committee. By 1872, the
I.W.A. had 30 sections, with a membership of over 5,000, distributed in
many parts of the country.


The I.W.A., a most important stage in
the development of American Marxism, for the first time provided at
least a loose national center for the groups of Marxists, and began to
function during a most crucial era of American history. With the defeat
of the slave-owners in the Civil War, the revolution had completed but
its first phase, the freeing of the slaves.   It was now necessary to
confiscate the planters' estates, to give land to the Negro ex-slaves,
and also to prevent the return to power of the defeated slavocracy.2
These were the revolutionary tasks of the Reconstruction period.

The bourgeoisie was split over these
basic questions. The left, or Radical Republicans, led by Stevens,
called for a democratic reconstruction of the South; whereas the right
forces, grouped around President Johnson (after Lincoln's assassination
on April 14, 1865) wanted to halt the revolution and to restore the
landowners to power in the South.

In December 1865, the Stevens forces,
who controlled Congress, succeeded in rejecting Johnson's reactionary
reconstruction program, and they also passed the Thirteenth Amendment,
abolishing slavery throughout the United States. During 1866, after
scoring a victory in the hard-fought elections of that year, they
enacted the Civil Rights Bill, the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, and the
Fourteenth Amendment, providing for equal rights of Negroes and whites.
In 1867, they also Put through, the Reconstruction Acts. The sum total
of these measures was to give the Negro people a minimum of freedom, but
not the land which they so basically needed.

The Negro freedmen, with strong
revolutionary initiative and consciousness, organized people's
conventions, engaged actively in political action, elected many high
Negro officials in local and state governments, and in various places
fought arms in hand for the all-important land. Together with their
white allies, they played an important part in many of the
reconstruction period state governments in the South and they wrote a
large amount of advanced and progressive legislation. They gave a
brilliant demonstration of their political capacity. There were two
Negro U.S. Senators, H. R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both of
Mississippi, between 1870 and 1881. Fourteen Negroes were members of the
House during the same general period. There were also Negro
lieutenant-governors in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi, as
well as large numbers of Negro state and local officials in many
southern states.

Karl Marx, with his great revolutionary
knowledge and experience, understood the need of consolidating the
victory won during the Civil War and he anticipated the danger of
counter-revolution. In the famous September 1865 "Address to the People
of the United States" of the General Council of the I.W.A., Marx warned
the American people to "Declare your fellow citizens from this day forth
free and equal, without any reserve. If you refuse them citizens'
rights while you exact from them Citizens' duties, you will sooner or
later face a new struggle which will "once more drench your country in
blood."3 This was the general line of the I.W.A. forces in the United
States, but the American Marxists did not fully understand how to make
the fight against the counter-revolution.

The working class, supported by the
farmers and Negroes, was the only class that could have carried through
the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1861-65 to completion in the
Reconstruction period. But it was much too immature politically to
accomplish this huge task. Preoccupied as it was with its urgent
economic problems and afflicted with petty-bourgeois illusions, labor
did not yet understand its true role as leader of all the oppressed. It
could not, therefore, rally its natural allies—the working farmers, and
Negro people—against the growing reaction of northern industrialists and
southern planters. Consequently, the counter-revolution triumphed in
the South.

The northern bourgeoisie had
accomplished its major purposes by the Civil War.   It smashed the
national political control of the planters; it held the country intact;
it removed the principal barriers to rapid capitalist development; it
won complete control of the government.   This was what it sought.  With
northern capital grown enormously stronger during the war and no longer
fearing its old-time enemy, the planters, the bourgeoisie sought to
make the latter its obedient allies, and it had no interest whatever in
creating a body of free Negro farmers in the South. It wanted instead to
put a halt to the revolution.   Hence, during the presidency of Andrew
Johnson, the northern capitalists, after defeating the Stevens Radicals,
arrived at a tacit agreement with the planters whereby, with Ku Klux
Klan violence, the latter were able to repress the Negro people and to
force them down into the system of peonage in which they still live.
This was a characteristic example of how the ruling, exploiting class,
faced by a revolutionary situation, has resorted to terrorism and
illegal counter-revolutionary violence.

Stimulated by the requirements of the
war and released from the restraints of the slavocracy, industrial
development, especially in the North, advanced at an unprecedented pace
during the next decades. Heavy industry and the railroads recorded a
very rapid expansion. The concentration of industries and the growth of
corporations were among the significant features of the times. The
bourgeoisie hastened to use its new political power to plunder the
public domain and the public treasury. Thus the Civil War set off
roaring decades of expansion and speculation, and a wild orgy of graft
and corruption. It was the "Gilded Age." The swift development of
capitalism also caused a rapid realignment of class forces, and the
sharpening of all class antagonisms.


The broad expansion of capitalism, the
increase in the number of industrial workers, and the intensification of
labor exploitation during the Civil War decade also brought about a
rapid growth in the trade union movement. Thus, in 1863 there were 79
local unions in 20 crafts, and a year later the figure had jumped up to
270 locals in 53 crafts. With the end of the war the tempo of growth
became still faster. The need for a general national organization of
labor grew acute. After an ineffectual effort with the Industrial
Assembly of America in 1864, success came with the setting up of the
National Labor Union in Baltimore on August 26, 1866. Joseph Weydemeyer,
the Marxist leader, who contributed greatly to its founding, died of
cholera in St. Louis on the day the N.L.U. convention began.

Marxist influence was definitely a
factor in this great stride forward of the working class, but the N.L.U.
was not a Marxist organization. In all the industrial centers the
socialists were active trade union builders, and they had a number of
delegates at the Baltimore convention. William H. Sylvis3 of the Molders
Union and leader of the National Labor Union, although not a Marxist,
was a friend of Weydemeyer and Sorge and also a supporter of the I.W.A.
He had a great talent for organization and was the first real national
trade union leader. William J. Jessup, head of the New York Carpenters,
was in direct communication with the General Council of the I.W.A. A. C.
Cameron, editor of the Workingman's Advocate, reprinted in full all the
addresses of the I.W.A. General Council, as well as many articles by
Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and Sorge. Ira Steward, noted eight-hour day
leader, read parts of Capital and was profoundly impressed by it. Even
Samuel Gompers, then a young member of the labor movement and a friend
of Sorge, was affected by the I.W.A. He said: "I became interested in
the International, for its principles appealed to me as solid and
practical." Of this time Gompers declared: "Unquestionably, in these
early days of the 'seventies the International dominated the labor
movement in New York City."4

The N.L.U. during its six years of
existence led important struggles and developed much correct basic labor
policy. One of its main activities was campaigning for the eight-hour
day. As a result of these efforts, Congress, on June 25, 1868, passed a
law according the eight-hour day to laborers, mechanics, and all other
workers in Federal employ.5

The N.L.U. was also active in defending
the unemployed. And it was the first trade union movement in the world
to advocate equal pay for women and men doing equal work. Kate Mullaney,
an outstanding union fighter, was appointed by Sylvis in 1868 as
assistant secretary and organizer of women.6 The N.L.U. also campaigned
against child labor and for the organization of the unorganized in all
crafts and industries. The founders of the N.L.U. understood the need
for independent political action. This led to the formation of the Labor
Reform Party in 1871. The N.L.U. and the Labor Reform Party, however,
fell into the hands of opportunists and reformers, who finally ran both
of them into the ground. This trend was hastened by the sudden death of
Sylvis in July 1869.

The Marxists took an active part in all
N.L.U. activities. They were militant builders of the trade unions and
advocates of independent political action. They participated in all the
strikes and other struggles of the period. They helped to organize the
historic eight-hour day parade in New York in 1871. In this parade a
large I.W.A. contingent marched with the 20,000 workers, carrying
through the streets of the city for the first time a red banner
inscribed with the slogan, "Workingmen of all countries, unite!" As the
I.W.A. section entered the City Hall plaza, it was greeted with lusty
cheers from the 5,000 assembled, who shouted, "Vive la Commune." The
Marxists were also a leading factor in the great Tompkins Square, New
York, demonstration of the unemployed

in 1874.

During this period of activity one of
the big achievements of the I.W.A. was to secure the affiliation of the
United Irish Workers, a group of Irish laborers. They were led by J. P.
McDonnell, an able Marxist, a Fenian, and co-worker of Marx in the First
International congresses. McDonnell, a capable and active trade
unionist, was very effective in organizing the unorganized. For many
years he was the editor of the Labor Standard, the leading trade union
journal of the period. Gompers called him "the Nestor of trade union


During these years the question of Negro
labor was a burning issue for the labor movement. The bosses were
systematically playing the white workers against the newly-freed Negro
workers, and were trying to use Negro workers to keep down the wages of
all workers—even as strikebreakers. The more advanced leaders of the
N.L.U., especially the Marxists, had some conception of the necessity of
Negro and white labor solidarity and of the N.L.U. undertaking the
organization of the freedmen. But, despite Sylvis, Richard Trevellick,
and others, nothing much was done about it. Strong Jim Crow practices
existed in many of the unions, and consequently the body of Negro
workers were not organized nor their interests protected.

As a result, the Negro workers launched
their own organization. In December 1869, after failure of the N.L.U. to
give the Negro workers consideration at its convention a few months
earlier, they called together a convention of 156 delegates, mostly from
the South, and organized the National Colored Labor Union, with Isaac
Myers as president. Trevellick was present, representing the N.L.U. The
convention elected five delegates to attend the next convention of the
N.L.U. The N.C.L.U. also set up, as headquarters, the National Bureau of
Labor in Washington.  Its paper was the New National Era.7

"In February, 1870, the Bureau issued a
prospectus containing the chief demands of the Negro people; it called
for a legislative body to fight for legislation which would gain
equality before the law for Negroes; it proposed an educational campaign
to overcome the opposition of white mechanics to Negroes in the trades;
it recommended cooperatives and homesteads to the Negro people."8

Relations between the N.L.U. and
N.C.L.U. became strained over a number of questions. They reached the
breaking point on the formation of the National Land Reform Party. That
this first great effort to establish unity between Negro and white
workers failed was to be ascribed chiefly to the short-sighted policies
of the white leaders of the N.L.U. They never understood the burning
problems of the Negro people during the reconstruction period, some of
them holding ideas pretty much akin to those of President Johnson. The
N.C.L.U. soon disappeared under the fierce pressure of the mounting
reaction in the South.

The Marxists, both within and without
the N.L.U., were active on the Negro question, primarily in a trade
union sense. They demanded the repeal of all laws discriminating against
Negroes. Section No. 1 of the I-W.A. set up a special committee to
organize Negro workers into trade unions. Consequently, the Negro people
looked upon the Socialists as trustworthy friends to whom they could
turn for co-operation. In the big New York eight-hour day parade Negro
union groups participated wine the I.W.A. contingent. And in the parade
against the execution of the Communards a company of Negro militia, the
Skidmore guards, Marched under the banner of the First International. 9 

From its beginning, the National Labor
Union had a strong international spirit. This was largely due to German
Marxist and English Chartist influences within its ranks. It maintained
friendly relations with the International Workingmen's Association. Marx
was highly gratified at the founding of the new national labor center
in the United States. The question of affiliation to the I.W.A. occupied
a prominent place at all N.L.U. conventions. Sylvis especially
appreciated the importance of the international solidarity of the

At the 1867 convention of the N.L.U.
President W. J. Jessup moved to affiliate with the I.W.A., with the
backing of Sylvis. The convention did not vote for affiliation, however,
but it did agree to send Richard F. Trevellick to the next I.W.A.
congress. Lack of funds, however, prevented his going. Good co-operative
relations always existed between the two organizations, Karl Marx
paying special attention to the promising N.L.U. Finally, late in 1869,
A. C. Cameron attended the I.W.A. congress at Basle, as the
representative of the N.L.U. There he presented several proposals,
providing for co-operation between European and American labor to
regulate immigration and to prevent the shipping of scabs to break
strikes in the United States. The 1870 convention of the N.L.U., while
not actually voting affiliation to the I.W.A., nevertheless adopted a
resolution which endorsed the principles of the International
Workingmen's Association and expressed the intention of affiliating with
it "at no distant date."10

The death of Sylvis in 1869 was a heavy
blow to the growing international labor solidarity. Commons says, "Had
it not been for this loss of its leader, the alliance of the National
Labor Union with the International, judging from Sylvis' correspondence,
would have been speedily brought about."11 The General Council of the
I.W.A. sent a letter to the N.L.U., signed by Karl Marx, mourning the
loss of Sylvis. It said that his death, by removing "a loyal,
persevering, and indefatigable worker in the good cause from among you,
has filled us with great grief and sorrow."


The N.L.U. reached its high point, with
an estimated 600,000 members, in 1869. After that date it began to
decline, and its decay was rapid. At its 1871 convention there were only
22 delegates, and these mostly agrarian reformers. The American Section
of the I.W.A., which was affiliated, quit in discontent at the way the
organization was being run. The 1872 convention brought forth only seven
delegates, old-time leaders. This was the end of the N.L.U. Attempts
were made to call conventions to revive it, in 1873 and 1874 at Columbus
and Rochester, but these efforts were fruitless, the organization being
dead beyond recall.

Numerous reasons combined to bring about
the end of the once-promising National Labor Union. Among these was the
fact that the organization was not definitely a trade union body. From
the outset it was composed of "trade unions, workers' associations, and
eight-hour leagues," and in the end it had been invaded by numerous
preachers, editors, lawyers, and other careerists, who cultivated
petty-bourgeois illusions among the workers. Moreover, the organization
was poorly financed, and it was too decentralized. It had no dues
system, nor any paid, continuous leadership. Its main activity was the
holding of national conventions, with the follow-up work being done by
its affiliated organizations. Last and most important of its weaknesses,
the organization, under the influence of Lassalleans, finally
deprecated trade union action and turned its major attention to the
currency question and to other petty-bourgeois reformist political
activities. This alienated the trade unions, which quit the
organization, and it fell a prey to all sorts of non-working class

As early as 1870, Sorge wrote a letter
to Karl Marx in which he clearly foresaw the course of events: "The
National Labor Union, which had such brilliant prospects in the
beginning of its career, was poisoned by Greenbackism and is slowly but
surely dying."12 The influence of the Marxists upon the N.L.U. was much
too limited to counteract these disintegrating influences.

The National Labor Union, despite its
short six years of life, played an important part in the development of
the American labor movement. It was the successor of the National Trades
Union of the 1830's and the predecessor of the Knights of Labor and the
American Federation of Labor. It was a pioneer in the organization of
Negro workers, in the defense of the rights of women and all other
workers, in the organization of independent political action, and in the
development of the international solidarity of the working class. The
traditions of struggle that Sylvis and his co-workers left behind them
will long be an inspiration to the forces of American labor. They are
vivid in the Communist Party of today.


During the period of the International
Workingmen's Association a major ideological struggle of the Marxists
was directed against Las-salleanism. Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863
organized the General Association of German Workers in Germany, the
program of which was to win universal suffrage and then to use the
workers' votes to secure state credits for producers' co-operatives.
This Lassalle saw as the road to socialism.13 He considered as futile
the trade union struggle of the workers for better economic conditions.
This rejection he based upon his theory of "the iron law of wages,"
which assumed that the average wages of workers, always down to minimum
levels, could not be raised by economic action. Hence trade unionism was

The German immigrants brought Lassalle's
ideas with them, and these gained considerable currency among the
German workers in the United States.   In this country, where the
workers already had the vote, apparently all that remained for them to
do was to use their ballots to gain control of the government and then
to apply Lassalle's scheme of state-financed co-operatives.   Whereupon,
 the workers'  problems would be solved.    This theory led to
extremely pernicious results in practice.   It meant the weakening of
the everyday struggles of the workers and the Negro people; it led to
neglect and isolation from the trade unions; it tended to reduce the
workers' struggle to opportunist political activity. Lassalleanism was
largely responsible for the fatal lessening of the basic trade union
economic functions of the National Labor Union, where it exerted great
influence. Seeing the unions breaking up during the big economic crisis
of 1873 and in the lost strikes of the period, many workers lost faith
in trade unionism and gave ear to the Lassallean illusions.

From the first appearance of
Lassalleanism the Marxists, led by Sorge, took issue actively with its
theory and practice, showing it to be false and injurious. Of great help
to the American Marxists in this struggle was Marx's celebrated polemic
against Weston in England, which was published, after Marx's death,
under the title, Value, Price and Profit. In this pamphlet Marx proved
conclusively that whereas the trend of capitalism is to bring about the
relative and absolute impoverishment of the workers, the latter, by
resolute economic and political action, can nevertheless secure a larger
share of the value which they create. Marx demonstrated that while it
was possible to abolish exploitation only by abolishing capitalism, the
workers can successfully resist the efforts of the capitalists to force
them down to a bare subsistence level.

The fight between the Marxists and
Lassalleans raged with special sharpness for several years during the
1870's in all the journals and branches of the I.W.A., and it was also
reflected in the trade unions. In this struggle the Marxists stood
four-square for strong trade unions and for active economic struggle.
They also contended that the workers should put up candidates in
elections only when they had solid trade union backing. Good theory and
the stern realities of life fought on the side of the Marxists. The
workers, faced with hard necessity, continued to build their unions and
to strike, and the opportunistic political campaigns of the Lassalleans
suffered one defeat after another. The Lassalleans fought a losing
battle. Gompers, at that time a radical young trade unionist, sided with
the Marxists in this historic struggle.

During the course of the controversy, in
1874, the Lassalleans organized the Labor Party in Illinois and the
Social-Democratic Party of North America in the East.  They had their
own journal, the Vorbote. Most active in  these Lassallean developments
were  Karl  Klinge and Adolph Strasser, the cigarmaker, who later played
a prominent part with Gompers in the formation of the American
Federation of Labor.   The Marxists gradually won a large measure of
control over the Lassallean journals and organizations and eventually
gave them a Marxist program. Besides this fight against the right,
against the Lassalleans, the American Marxists, with the active advice
of Marx and Engels, also conducted a struggle against the deep-seated
and persistent left sectarianism within the I.W.A.  Among the current
manifestations of this disease were tendencies among the German
socialist workers to neglect to learn the English language and the
American customs, to isolate themselves from the broad American masses
and their daily struggles, to launch trade unions solely of German
workers and dual to existing labor organizations, and generally to fail
to apply Marxist principles concretely to American conditions.   Some
years later Engels, dealing with the still persisting sectarianism in
the United States, stated: "The Germans have not understood how to use
their theory as a lever which could set the American Masses in motion;
they do not understand the theory themselves for the most part and treat
it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way, as something which has got to be
learned off by heart but which will then supply needs without more ado.
 To them it is a credo and not a guide to action."14 Marx was equally
outspoken in his criticism of this doctrinaire sectarian weakness in the
United States.


The years of the International
Workingmen's Association were full of storm and struggle. Organized
reaction in Europe, frightened at the revolutionary implications of the
International, waged ruthless war against it. This was particularly true
after the defeat of the historic Paris Commune in 1871. The I.W.A. was
outlawed in France and other countries. But more effective in bringing
the First International to an end were profound internal ideological
weaknesses. To correct these, numerous theoretical and practical battles
were waged by the Marxists to establish Marxism as the predominant
working class ideology. They fought against the opportunist trade union
leaders in England, against the Proudhonists in France, against the
Lassalleans in Germany, and against the Bakuninists on a general scale.
The fight against the Bakuninists was the most severe.

Michael Bakunin, a Russian anarchist,
led a determined struggle to wrest the leadership of the world's workers
away from the Marxists. In 1868, he organized the so-called Black
International, with a program of anti-political, putschist violence, and
he demanded affiliation with the I.W.A. Refused by the General Council,
Bakunin carried the fight into the 1869 Congress of the I.W.A. at
Basle, Switzerland. Marx won the day, with a substantial majority. In
the ensuing split Bakunin was able to carry with him important French,
Spanish, and Belgian organizations. The struggle grew very bitter, and
at its 1872 congress the I.W.A., in view of the unfavorable internal and
external situation, decided to move its headquarters to New York. F. A.
Sorge was chosen as secretary.

The difficulties which beset the First
International on a world scale also, with variations, afflicted its
American section. The I.W.A. in the United States, in view of the
political immaturity of the working class and the socialist movement,
was undermined by all sorts of reformists, pure and simple trade
unionists, Lassalleans, and Bakuninist anarchists. The I.W.A., after
shifting its headquarters to the United States, continued for four more
years. But, on July 15, 1876, at its Philadelphia convention, which was
attended almost exclusively by American delegates, the First
International formally dissolved itself. Thirteen years would pass
before a new international would take the place of the I.W.A.; but in
the United States, as we shall see later, the dissolution was but a
prelude to a new upward swing of Marxism.

During its twelve years of existence the
International Workingmen's Association in the United States contributed
much to the development of the socialist movement.   At the beginning
it found a few scattered groups of Marxists with an uncertain ideology.
It greatly strengthened their Marxist understanding, and it did much to
unite them as a national grouping. In short, it laid the ideological and
organizational foundations of the structure which has finally become
the modern Communist Party. On an international scale, the I.W.A. did
immense work in giving the workers a revolutionary outlook and in
building their mass trade unions and political parties. The First
International raised the world's labor movement out of its former muddle
of Utopian societies and half socialist sects and gave it a scientific
Marxist groundwork. In the words of Lenin, "It laid the foundation of
the international organization of the workers in order to prepare their
revolutionary onslaught on capital ... the foundation of their
international proletarian struggle for socialism."15

1 Cited by Morris Hillquit, History of Socialism in the United States, p. 178, N. Y., 1903.
2 James S. Allen, Reconstruction, the Battle for Democracy, p. 31, N. Y., 1937.
3 Schlueter, Lincoln, Labor, and Slavery, p. 200.
4 Charlotte Todes, William H. Sylvis and the National Labor Union, N. Y., 1942. 
5 Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, Vol. 1, pp. 60, 85, N. Y., 1925. 
6 Forner, History of the Labor Movement in the U.S., p. 377.
7 Todes, William H. Sylvis, p. 84.
8 Charles H. Wesley, Negro Labor in the United States, p. 174, N. Y., 1927.
9 Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US., p. 405.
10 Todei, William H. Sylvis, p. 90.
11 Commons, History of Labor in the U.S., Vol. 2, p. 132.
12 Cited by Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the U.S., p. 429.
13 Thomas Kirkup, History of Socialism, p. 108, London, 1920.
14 Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 449-50.
15 Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 10, pp. 50-31.

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