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Remembering the International

With Bombardier Cameron about to launch Britain’s participation in a third Iraq war — with as little clue about where it might lead as the first two — it is sobering to remember the 150th anniversary of the formation of the International Working Mens Association on September 28 1864.

It was genuine internationalism, not the fake kind paraded by Cameron and co.

That said, not many people will be remembering the 150th anniversary of the First International despite our best efforts.

On the 100th anniversary in 1964 — whatever view we may take of it — the socialist countries of eastern Europe still existed and the occasion was marked by the publication of the complete minutes of the International from that time.

Indeed so familiar was the matter to at least those on the left that a collection of radical and socialist writings from the 1860s, The Era of the Reform League, passed over the IWMA on the basis that the story was already well enough known to readers. Not any more.

So there is a job of recovery to be done by the left and by socialist historians, in particular.

The International met on that late September day, a Sunday, in St Martin’s Hall on Long Acre in central London.

It was then a music hall and became a theatre. It is now a substantial office block and, judging by the cramped desk layout and working conditions, the inhabitants could well do with finding out what went on in their building 150 years ago.

The English labour movement during the Chartist period had developed a strong sense of international solidarity and London, then the pre-eminent capital of capitalism worldwide, had a relatively relaxed view about asylum, refugees and immigration.

So the basis for an international gathering existed in terms of personnel and precedent.

Marx was a relatively late addition to events, but he was sufficiently well-known to the London trade unionists who were part of the core of the International to be invited to chair the opening session. He ended up writing the still well-known opening address.

It might be argued that the address was the most significant thing to come out of the International. The ideas and formulations in it influenced a generation of the left.

Even so Marx wrote it as a compromise document, something that different and opposing strands of thought represented in the International could live with.

Marx had great hopes for the impact of the International, but with hindsight it is difficult to suggest they were vindicated.

The International certainly played an important role in the formation of the Reform League, which was central to the 1867 Reform Act.

Unfortunately the extension of the franchise it allowed did not, as Engels complained, lead at the subsequent general election to an increase in working-class MPs.

It did spark the formation of the Land and Labour League in 1869-70 but this did not become the new working-class party to replace the Chartists that Marx had hoped for.

Gareth Stedman Jones, writing in History Workshop Journal almost a generation ago, argued that while Marx was enthusiastic about the activity of the International, Engels was not and thought he should be cracking on with more theory.

Well, not really. The International was very much a London affair. The organised labour movement and refugees from European despotisms were generally rather weaker elsewhere.

Engels did gather together supporters of the International in Manchester, but there were not all that many.

All that said, September 28 1864 is part of our history and one that continues to have relevance 150 years on.


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