150 Years after the First International: A Critical History
A panel held at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Jon Bekken (Anarcho-Syndicalist Review)
James Heartfield (audacity.org)
William Pelz (Elgin Community College)
The First International (1864 - 1876), or International Workingmen's Association, was founded in the long shadow of 1848, amidst Polish and Italian national liberation movements and the upheaval of the American Civil War. As an organization it pushed against the limitations of radical Republican politics (in both its European and American iterations). It was the first to present the need for an organized body of the international working class in order to develop the political forces capable of challenging industrial capitalism on the world's stage. The recognition of the global nature of capitalist society, coupled with a critique of radical democratic politics of the second half of nineteenth century -- both from an Anarchist and Marxist perspective -- make up the political content of the First International.
Any history of the First International in the present is necessarily informed -- consciously or unconsciously -- by the experience and assessment of the Marxist Internationals in the twentieth century. A critical history of the First International today would have to be part of a larger reflection on the origins of Marxism and the mid-nineteenth century shift in leftist political practice (the transformation of both its means and ends). In assessing this history, one discontinuity immediately presents itself: unlike the history of the Second, Third, and Fourth International, the First International was composed of largely heterogeneous political tendencies, including (but not limited to) British labor reformers (including Chartists), Polish radical republicans (in opposition to Russian Tzarism), Italian supporters of Mazzini (for national unification and the end of the papal state), German Lassallean radicals (followers of Ferdinand Lassalle), et. al; at the center of these ideological differences was the conflict between Marxism and Anarchism (with Marx and Bakunin in the foreground). While the First International is known as the moment of this infamous political split, it remains the task of leftists today to specify what this historical division on the Left might mean for the present. In this spirit, this panel asks: what is at stake in the history First International? And how might it help us advance an understanding of the tasks of the Left today?
The First International died "almost unnoticed" (as one historian has put it) four years after its transfer to New York. In 1924, when Karl Korsch raised the specter of the First International, it was to make sense of the shortcomings of the Second International. His mention of this brief organizational experiment provided the historical distance from which to reflect on both the theory and practice of Marxism. Today, the historical regression advanced in the twentieth century has left us with a diminished capacity to assess the historical tasks of the Left, thus limiting the imagination for a future emancipatory politics. In this impoverished present, the history of the First International, and its contribution to the problem of freedom in the Age of Capital, can help us deepen our understanding of the meaning and tasks of the Left today. Perhaps then we will finally be able to give the First International a proper burial.
1. What is the political climate at the birth of the First International? How was the organization's political horizon shaped by the revolutionary efforts in Europe 1830s onward? How did this climate inform the composition of the First International? What common vision of social revolutionary practice (if any) was shared by its members? Despite its ideological heterogeneity, what held the First International together?
2. A current trend on the Left today is a push for local engagement (sometimes presented as "think globally, act locally”, in light of such a development how do we understand the attempts by the First International to organize globally? How did this international scope help the First International advance a politics against capitalism? What if anything is left of this tradition? In what ways does it depart from its nineteenth-century iteration?
3. Does Anarchism in the nineteenth-century present us with a different set of problems than present-day anarchism? (If so, in what way?) How does the Marx-Bakunin split in the First International help us understand the content of Anarchist politics? What does it illuminate about the relationship between Marxism and Anarchism? What are the different perspectives of history and freedom held by Anarchists and Marxists (in what way are these meaningful)? Lastly, how were both Marx and Bakunin (and, we might add, Proudhon) critics of the radical democratic tradition in the nineteenth-century? And where do their critiques differ? How does this difference shape their political practice?