The Founding of the First International

The great change came in the year 1863. In that year, a delegation of French workers was given permission to visit England for the opening of the London Exhibition of Modern Industry in order to study industrial developments and to establish contact with their English counterparts. English and French labor leaders soon resolved to create a continuing economic and political cooperation, to invite representatives of other Continental nations to join them, and to constitute an international federation of working men pledged to end the prevailing economic system and to replace it with some form of collective ownership. The International, as it was to be called, was composed of various elements. Among the French, the Proudhonists and Blanquists were in the majority; among the Italians, there were nonsocialist radical democrats of Mazzini's persuasion; among the British, nonpolitical unionists and radical reformers, some of whom were followers of Comte, worked side by side.

Marx, contrary to his previous aloofness from organizations that were not fully committed to his own view, sensed the importance of this gathering and resolved not only to join it but to become its directing genius. German artisans residing in London made him their representative, and soon after the first meeting, Marx took full command. The Inaugural Address of the International, which Marx composed and which was adopted by the organization, is a historic document hardly less important in the Marxist canon than The Communist Manifesto penned fifteen years earlier.

During the next ten years of his life, Marx devoted a major part of his energies to the affairs of the International. He fought for his theoretical orientation against middle-class reformers and Bakuninist anarchists alike; he waged a continuous battle with the disciples of Blanqui and Proudhon in France and with the Lassalleans in Germany. Throughout these years he strove to make what had started as a loose alliance with divergent ideologies into a united movement informed by that one revolutionary ideology which he had forged in the many years of loneliness and isolation during his British exile.

The International soon became a powerful movement, inspiring fear in the defenders of the status quo. Branches of the International were formed in all the principal countries of Europe. From then on, Marx, as head of the General Council of the International, was in effective control of the movement and insisted on rigid adherence to the line he had set down. The specter of Communism that Marx had seen haunting Europe in 1847 seemed much more real to the men of power of the late sixties than it had been twenty years earlier. The obscure scholar from the British Museum suddenly became an object of choice attention for the various intelligence services that combed the world of London revolutionaries for information about subversive activities.

When the first volume of Das Kapital was published in 1867, Marx was already in the limelight as the leader of the International. Although the book did not attract as much immediate attention as he had no doubt expected, it soon gained an audience, particularly among Continental socialists. In England there was only one critical review, which amusingly remarked that "the presentation of the subject invests the driest economic questions with certain peculiar charm;" but on the Continent there was a more understanding reaction. A number of Marx's friends propagandized it strongly, and some of his old German associates sent him praise. In Russia, in particular, reviews were very favorable and more searching than anywhere else. Generally, quite apart from its scientific merits, the book was widely read by members of the International. Marx's previous books had been neglected even in German speaking countries. The first volume of Das Kapital was translated into Russian, French, English, and Italian within ten years of its publication.

In the late sixties, Marx, as head of the International and author of a book that sought to lay bare "the economic law of motion of modern society," must have felt that he had finally achieved the union of socialist theory and revolutionary practice that he had aimed for ever since 1847. He had provided the intellectual foundation for a socialist movement over which he exercised full organizational control. Yet that dream was soon shattered.

Ironically, the Paris Commune of 1871, the first instance of the working class achieving power for itself and thus seemingly vindicating Marx's vision, also proved the undoing of the International. although the Paris Commune was dominated by Proudhonians and latter-day Jacobins rather than by Marxists, Marx had risen to its defense in an eloquent address published under the title, The Civil War in France. But soon after the Commune was drowned in blood, the latent dissensions in the ranks of the International came to a head. The English trade unionists grew frightened; they feared to be associated in the mind of peaceful British workers with the "red terrorists of Paris." The French movement was shattered, and its exiled leaders, as is the wont of emigre politicians, fell to quarreling among themselves. Followers of Bakunin now attempted to grasp the opportunity to wrest control from Marx. In order to insure his continued domination of the International, Marx managed to have its seat transferred to the United States where his followers were in full control. This proved to be the fatal blow. The International finally expired in Philadelphia in 1876.

In the few years that remained, Marx, wrecked by illness, produced no major work. When his followers and those of Lasselle united in 1875 to form a united socialist party at a congress in Gotha, he wrote a series of marginal and highly critical notes on its program in which he formulated for the last time his conception of the theory and practice that should guide the socialist movement. This Critique of the Gotha Program, published after his death, was his last major writing.

Toward the end of his life Marx finally achieved a measure of comfortable living. Engels, by now quite prosperous, settled an annuity on him, enabling him to spend his last few years in relative ease. He had become a famous man, and socialists from all over Europe consulted him by letter or in person. Russian radicals in particular--to the astonishment of Marx who for thirty years had attacked Russia as the charnel house of Europe--now flocked to him and asked for his advice. In addition, the young leaders of the now united German Social Democratic movement--Bebel, Bernstein and Kautsky--visited him and consulted him on all important issues. The German movement flourished, and one of the leaders of the revived French movement, Jules Guesde, consulted Marx on the program to be adopted. Slowly, the Bakuninist influence was pushed back by Marxist leaders in Italy and Switzerland, with whom Marx also carried on a long correspondence.

A revered figure in the growing socialist movement, Marx had finally found an audience and a satisfying role. But his creative powers were diminished. He still read voraciously; he even taught himself new languages such as Russian and Turkish, but, to Engels' despair, he wrote less and less, and more obscurely than ever.

In 1881, his wife died of cancer. A year later his eldest daughter, the wife of the French socialist leader Jean Longuet, also died. Marx never recovered from these blows. He died in an armchair in his study on March 14, 1883. Only a few friends and socialist representatives from abroad accompanied the casket to Highgate cemetery. His death was hardly noticed by the general public.


From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 65-68.


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