First International Is Founded

Creation of the First International marked the initial attempt at establishing a worldwide organization to promote radical labor activities.

Summary of Event

The International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), known as the First International, was established in London in 1864 as the result of earlier meetings between British and French trade unionists. Preliminary contacts were made in the summer of 1862, when British labor leaders entertained a delegation of French workers visiting the London International Exhibition. In July, 1863, a French delegation attended a meeting held in London’s St. James’s Hall that was organized by British trade unionists to protest Russian suppression of the Polish uprising of January, 1863. At that meeting, the idea of Anglo-French cooperation was broached; it led to a second meeting that brought representatives from additional countries in 1864. That meeting at St. Martin’s Hall, on September 28, 1864, gave birth to the IWMA. First International
Socialism;First International
Marx, Karl
[p]Marx, Karl;and First International[First International]
International Working Men’s Association[International Working Mens Association]
Labor unions;and First International[First International]
[kw]First International Is Founded (Sept. 28, 1864)
[kw]International Is Founded, First (Sept. 28, 1864)
[kw]Founded, First International Is (Sept. 28, 1864)
First International
Socialism;First International
Marx, Karl
[p]Marx, Karl;and First International[First International]
International Working Men’s Association[International Working Mens Association]
Labor unions;and First International[First International]
[g]Great Britain;Sept. 28, 1864: First International Is Founded[3740]
[c]Economics;Sept. 28, 1864: First International Is Founded[3740]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 28, 1864: First International Is Founded[3740]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 28, 1864: First International Is Founded[3740]
Bakunin, Mikhail
Engels, Friedrich
[p]Engels, Friedrich;and First International[First International]
Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph
[p]Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph[Proudhon, Pierre Joseph];and First International[First International]

According to the IWMA’s general rules, the organization’s purpose was “to afford a central medium of communication and cooperation between Working Men’s Societies existing in different countries.” Membership was open to all worker’s organizations regardless of their ideology, although most were inclined toward socialism. Unlike the later Socialist International or Second International Second International , the IWMA was not a federation of national parties. Rather, it was made up of individual members who joined local sections in their home countries. At that time, most wage laborers were artisans who worked in small shops. For example, the original five French IWMA representatives were a cabinetmaker, a bookbinder, an engraver, a musical instrument maker, and a machinist.

At the first meeting of the IWMA, representatives formed an executive committee that included the German political theorist Karl Marx, who had been living in London since his banishment from Paris in 1849. Although Marx was not instrumental in the founding of the First International, he soon became its leading member. It was his version of the constitution that was finally adopted, and he was asked to deliver the organization’s inaugural address. Despite the fact that the address ended, like his Communist Manifesto
Communist Manifesto, The (Marx and Engels) of 1848, with the words “Workers of the World unite,” it was a more moderate appeal. The address pointed out that the great increase in European production and wealth between 1848 and 1864 had failed to raise the standard of living of workers. The remedy which Marx advocated, however, was not revolution but political action. The first duty of the workers was to conquer political power by using the one weapon they had—their numbers.

Apparently the experience of the revolutions Revolutions of 1848;and Karl Marx[Marx] of 1848 had taught Marx the dangers of fomenting revolution without the backing of a well-organized, working-class movement. At first, the IWMA did not even declare a specific commitment to public ownership of the means of production. The first need was unity, and talk of revolution would have led to disunity. Many IWMA members were trade unionists who had no desire to change society by revolutionary means. The British members looked upon the First International as a means of preventing the importation of strike breakers. Most of the French members were followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph
[p]Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph[Proudhon, Pierre Joseph];and First International[First International] , a leading socialist who opposed political action of any type.

The IWMA did engage in a wide variety of support activities as illustrated by their reaction to the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and First International[First International]
Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Great Britain[Great Britain]
Great Britain;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] Although British textile Textile industry;and cotton[Cotton]
Textile industry;English workers suffered bitterly because of the cotton Cotton;and Civil War[Civil War] shortage caused by the Union blockade Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union blockade of the Confederacy, the IWMA expressed its solidarity with U.S. president Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and First International[First International] and helped rally workers to support the struggle against African American slavery in the Confederacy. Formed shortly before the U.S. presidential election of 1864, the International sent, as one of its first acts, an address of congratulations (written by Marx) to Lincoln, that “single-minded son of the working class.” Since textiles were vital to the British economy, some industrialists were demanding armed intervention to break Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union blockade the Union blockade of the Confederate states. The IWMA was instrumental in organizing against this possibility and thus helped prevent a British military venture which might have been disastrous for Lincoln, the Union, and the struggle to abolish slavery.

During the first five years of its existence, the First International grew rapidly. It held annual congresses in London, Geneva Geneva , Lausanne, Brussels, and Basel. By 1869, it claimed 800,000 regular dues-paying members. The Times
Times, The (London);and First International[First International] of London estimated its membership at 2.5 million, while a German official claimed to have proof that more than five million pounds were secretly deposited in the association’s London bank account. Such reports greatly exaggerated the organization’s actual resources and, in turn, offered the public an inaccurate image of the organization.

The IWMA helped with strike support by collecting money and preventing strike breakers from crossing national borders. It promoted the self-organization of the working class and contributed to the increase of trade unions during the 1860’s. These activities, combined with an overestimation of the International’s assets, provoked alarm among many European governments. Far from being well funded, the IWMA started with a yearly income of only thirty-three pounds sterling, and its financial situation never really improved. Friedrich Engels Engels, Friedrich
[p]Engels, Friedrich;and First International[First International] once joked that the great sum of money the International had amassed was largely in debts. Furthermore, all the evidence suggests that European radicals acted independently of the IWMA, and it received the blame (or credit) after the fact.

By 1872, however, international events were spelling disaster for the future of the association. One such event was the establishment of the Paris Commune, Paris Commune (1871) a revolutionary government set up by the workers in Paris after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)]
Prussia;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
France;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] . Although a few members of the First International participated in the Paris Commune in its early stages, Marx advised his followers in France against the rising, although he later changed his mind.

Most Europeans were frightened by the Paris Commune and horrified at the stories of atrocities committed by its so-called Communards. Although the government forces were actually more brutal than the Communards, the press did not report these facts objectively. Two days after the collapse of the Commune, Marx Marx, Karl
[p]Marx, Karl;Civil War in France wrote Civil War in France, a classic defense of the Commune, and openly identified it with the First International. By so doing, he brought down the wrath of European governments on the First International. Also, by associating the organization with revolution, he alienated the more conservative elements of labor, particularly British trade unionists who up to that time had been among his strongest supporters.


If the episode of the Commune seriously weakened the First International, the feud between Marx and Mikhail Bakunin Bakunin, Mikhail
[p]Bakunin, Mikhail;and Karl Marx[Marx]
Marx, Karl
[p]Marx, Karl;and Mikhail Bakunin[Bakunin] was the coup de grâce. A Russian exile and anarchist Anarchism , Bakunin had first clashed with Marx at the Basel Congress held in 1869. Bakunin wanted the First International to be a loose federal organization that would attack authority in all its forms, especially the state. Marx wanted greater, not less, centralization within the First International and wanted to capture the state and use it for the proletariat rather than dissolve it. However, IWMA members who agreed with Bakunin believed in direct action and even assassination to achieve their goal of a stateless society. These anarchists considered themselves libertarians who fought against Marx and his dictatorship in the International. Thus, even within the IWMA, there existed groups with irreconcilable beliefs.

At the Congress held at The Hague in 1872, Marx managed to have Bakunin expelled from the First International. He also had the seat of the general council transferred from London to New York. As some of the French delegates suggested, this act was “moving it to the moon,” for in 1872, the United States was isolated from European affairs and had little interest to the First International. At an IWMA congress held in Philadelphia Philadelphia;and First International[First International] in 1876, the First International was dissolved.

Further Reading

  • Ehrenberg, John. Proudhon and His Age. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996. Social biography that places the life of the leading French socialist thinker of his time within the context of a changing French society.
  • Institute of Marxism-Leninism. Documents of the First International. 5 vols. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1962-1964. The IWMA is detailed in this documentary history, which contains substantial selections of material from the most significant deliberations of the organization.
  • _______. Hague Congress of the First International. 2 vols. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976-1978. This volume gathers documentation on the critical meeting that led to the defeat of the anarchists and ultimate death of the First International.
  • Lee, Wendy Lynn. On Marx. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2002. Student-friendly overview of Marx’s political philosophy. Covers his thinking on such subjects as human nature, labor and alienation, and dialectics.
  • Lissagaray, Prosper. History of the Commune. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975. Account of the Commune written by an important participant who later participated in radical exile politics in London.
  • McLaughlin, Paul. Mikhail Bakunin: The Philosophical Basis of His Theory of Anarchism. New York: Algora, 2002. Exposition of Bakunin’s political philosophy that challenges Marxist and liberal interpretations.
  • Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. On the Paris Commune. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971. Collection that brings together the classic Marxist writings on the Paris Commune of 1871, most notably Marx’s Civil War in France, whose publication was a turning point in the history of the IWMA.
  • Morland, David. Demanding the Impossible? Human Nature and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Anarchism. London: Cassell, 1997. Study of the political philosophies of Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin to explore the relationship between anarchism’s notion of human nature and its vision of a stateless society.
  • Padover, Saul K., ed. Karl Marx on the First International. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. Aptly introduced and well-edited selection of Karl Marx’s own writings on the IWMA.
  • Wood, Allen W. Karl Marx. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. Provides an explanation of Marx’s ideas from a philosophical perspective.

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Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic Alliance

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