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 editors."


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 workers.

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 elements. 

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 useless.

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.

Chapter 5

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