The International Congress of Workers (Hyndman, 1889)

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The attention which has been attracted throughout Europe by the two International Labour Congresses that were held last month in Paris was most satisfactory to all who hope that the present system of anarchical competition and commercial war may be brought to an end without fearful bloodshed. There is always some chance of a peaceful issue when people are willing to listen to sober statements and plain argument; and the press in every country has recognised, notwithstanding a few inevitable sneers, that the proceedings in Paris, especially those at the Possibilist Congress, betokened a new departure in the struggle of labour against capital. Social-Democrats showed, as they have often shown before, that they are even more ready to work for palliatives of the existing system than the most moderate of Trade Unionists, without sacrificing one iota of their principles; while the perfect order which prevailed in the Rue Lancry, even when Dr. Merlino laid down his Anarchist propositions with great eloquence and ability, or a Boulangist delegate, who was allowed to sit in spite of his Boulangism, droned out some rather reactionary platitudes, proved, too, that the Possibilists and their allies were capable of giving antagonists the fairest possible hearing.

There could have been no more appropriate celebration of the Fall of the Bastille than the meeting of an International Congress of Labour in Paris during the Republican Fetes of July. The Possibilist Party of France, the Party of the Socialist Trade Unions and other Working Class organisations, understood this fully, and the members of the National Committee did their utmost to carry out the mandates of the International Trade Union Congresses of 1886 and 1888 in the widest sense. The thanks of the working class throughout the civilised world are due to that Committee; for it is not too much to say that from first to last they took every step which they possibly could take to render the Congress thoroughly representative in every way. Upwards of 600 bona fide delegates assembled in answer to their invitations from fourteen nationalities. The verification of the mandates of all the delegates was carried out most thoroughly, not a single doubtful credential being accepted. The English credentials, for instance, were examined by a national committee composed of four well-known Trade Unionists and one provincial Social-Democrat.

Thus the International Congress which met in the Rue Lancry proved a magnificent triumph for the Possibilists and the foreign nationalities which acted with them. That the Trade Unions of Great Britain should have been so completely represented, notwithstanding the bitter opposition of the Trade Union Parliamentary Committee, headed by Mr. Henry Broadhurst and Mr. George Shipton, was alone a great victory. The names of Fenwick, M.P., Eveleigh, Ben. Cooper, John Burns, Cook, Drew, Parnell, Greenwood, with Miss Simcox and Mrs. Annie Besant, not to speak of others, show how thoroughly representative of the 139,000 who gave them their mandates this delegation was. None could have better spoken for the Socialistic Radicals of London than the old Chartist Nieass, while William Clark’s presence for the Fabian Society gave representation to the middle-class Socialist element. Burrows, Hobart, Oliver, Snow, Tanner, Walker and the rest of the fifteen delegates were well able to champion the principles of the Social Democratic Federation. Working cordially with the English throughout were Bowen, Waudby, and Georgii, on behalf of the Knights of Labour and other labour organisations of America, from which country a special emissary brought us the greeting of 600,000 men already working for the proclamation of an Eight Hour Day throughout the Great Republic on May 1st, 1890. Thus the three principal capitalist countries were represented as they have never yet been represented, or nearly so, at any previous Congress. Close behind them came active little Belgium, admirably served by Verrycken, Blancvallée, Defnet and another, the Danes represented by Jenssen, the President of the Trade Union Committee, the Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese, Austrians and the Italians, Costa and Cipriani, who sat in both Congresses and were for fusion à outrance. Altogether those who met in the hall of the National Union at 10, Rue Lancry at one o'clock on July 15th, 1888, had every reason to congratulate themselves on the thoroughly representative and working-class character of the Congress. The proceedings, as will be seen further on, were worthy of the delegates and of those who sent them.

It is necessary to refer briefly to the circumstances that led to the calling of another Congress in the Rue Rochechouart which, so far as England France, and America, are concerned, was not representative in any sense of the word. The Germans have done an enormous amount of work in systematising Socialism and in placing vague popular aspirations on a scientific basis. The present writer, for nine years past, has done his utmost by pen and voice to spread their teaching, and to give them credit for the splendid services rendered by Marx, Engels, and others to the cause of humanity. But it is useless to disguise the fact that their methods of organisation and management are essentially dictatorial and arbitrary. Circumstances force them into this in their own country, and they seem to be incapable of adopting any other tactics elsewhere. Unless they and their little knots of out-and-out supporters in every nationality —who often represent nobody but themselves – are allowed to dominate completely they are disinclined to work with others at all. The union they aim at is the old familiar incorporation of the lamb with the lion. Consequently, when the Possibilist Party, undoubtedly the party of French workers, was given the organisation of the Congress of 1889 by the International Trade Union Congresses of 1886 and 1888 (from the latter of which the Germans were unfortunately excluded) the leaders of the Marxist faction, as it is commonly called, set to work to attempt to over-ride those mandates. The Possibilists gave way to them most handsomely and those who wish to go to the bottom of the matter should read the whole official correspondence of both sides in the Parti Ouvrier of July 16th, 1889.

Nothing, however, would satisfy the Germans and their special friends. These are in Great Britain Dr. and Mrs. Aveling, Bernstein and Engels. In France Lafargue, Guesde and Boulé. In Holland Domela Nieuwenhuis. In Belgium Anseele and Volders. In Germany, of course, Bebel and Liebknecht with their official ring which, as has been said, circumstances compel them to form on an arbitrary and dictatorial basis. They determined to call another Congress, though they vehemently denounced at the Hague the time chosen by the Possibilists for their Congress, in the very same week. They did so, and the Congress was held; but the only country that was fully and exclusively represented at it was the nationality of the Germans themselves! This was most unfortunate in every way. It gave even a Chauvinist tinge to the Congress held in the Rue Rochechouart, which was known throughout Paris as the “German” Congress, as opposed to the French, English and International Congress sitting in the Rue Lancry. When, too, the question of fusion arose, which the Possibilist Congress was eager to accept and voted for unanimously subject to the verification of mandates as their delegates’ mandates had been verified, Liebknecht, instead of keeping himself in the background, forced himself prominently to the front with his resolution! How different from the conduct of Brousse and Joffrin who, especially the former, suppressed themselves throughout the week for fear of arousing old animosities. It is high time that the German Social Democratic leaders should learn that, in the great movement for which they have done so much and sacrificed so much, the hour has come for them to abandon their natural desire to dictate and lecture to Social Democrats of other nationalities. That opinion was it seems expressed in Paris, even by the rank and file of the German delegates themselves.

At any rate, the Marxist Congress refused fusion on the basis of verification of mandates, though the Germans were expressly given the opportunity of verifying, and then destroying, their own credentials. During the discussion, also, very improper personalities were introduced, though not a word of any such tendency was uttered during the whole debate at the Possibilist Congress. Sad to say, therefore, no fusion was brought about, and, thanks to the action of the Germans and their supporters, the capitalist press has been able to raise a laugh at the expense of International Socialism divided against itself. I do not hesitate to say that, in my opinion, Bebel and Liebknecht in particular have marred their whole record of past services by their action on this occasion, and I hope that they will endeavour to make amends in the near future for the infinite mischief they have done this year and last to the cause of International Social Democracy.

As it was, the Marxists spent seven solid days in rhetoric and wrangle. Not a practical measure did they discuss, not a serious resolution did they pass. Let us sincerely hope that in 1891 a better spirit will prevail, and that some of the more voluble, when we all meet together, will emulate the reticence of the English Social Democratic delegates in the Rue Lancry, who occupied in all less than an hour by their speeches. It is by such self-suppression alone that a really formidable International organisation of the workers can be formed.

Much as we may admire many of the men at the Marxist Congress; much as we must respect the courage and self-sacrifice of the German and Austrian delegates who attended in such large numbers at so great risk; much as we might wish and strive for a fusion of the two Congresses, it is quite clear that, though both might agree on Socialism in the abstract, there were distinct differences as to methods. The Marxist Congress was authoritarian in its constitution and opposed to the only possible arrangement by which a democratic organisation can be formed, the principle namely, —for it is as was most forcibly and truly said no less than a principle – that groups of workers should put forward delegates whom they control and instruct, instead of more or less distinguished individuals putting forward themselves controlled and instructed by nobody. The Marxist Congress also favoured the centralisation of power in the hands of an International Committee, in place of the federative autonomy which was unanimously voted in the Rue Lancry. It is essential that these crucial differences should be borne in mind in the future; certainly we should not imagine that they have been settled, when it is almost inevitable that in one shape or another the same questions will arise at the next Congress, and that no effort will be spared to solve them in the Marxist sense.

Leaving this exceedingly sad and unpleasant business, of which the only good thing that can, with truth, be said is that it shows to a certain extent the vitality of the movement for Socialism to gain so rapidly in strength notwithstanding intestine disputes, it is a relief to turn to the really good and permanent work done at the Possibilist Congress. On the first order of the day an arrangement was adopted which gave effect to the views of all the delegates, while allowing full scope for discussion in brief ten-minute speeches. The question, practically, was how the conditions of labour might be improved even under the domination of capital. In order to arrive, as far as possible, at an unanimous vote all the resolutions and reports on this first order were submitted to a Standing Orders Committee which, by a careful process of comparison and exclusion, arrived at the following fourteen points to be submitted to the Congress. They have been printed already in nearly every important newspaper, but as they are none of them yet effectively carried out in any European country, certainly not in Great Britain, they will bear repetition here.

1. Eight hours a day to be the maximum day’s work fixed by International Law.

2. At least one day’s holiday to be granted in each week and no work to be done on fete days.

(The sense of the Congress, as generally expressed, was that all should have one day of solid rest in the week but not on the same day, which is impossible even in Sabbatarian countries. As to fête days, those who were compelled to work for the good of the community as railway servants, cooks and others should have, by law, a holiday on another day instead.)

3. Abolition of night work as far as practicable for men and women and entirely for children.

(This was the form of the resolution finally adopted by the Congress, as all present will admit. Owing to some mistake, however, women were coupled with the children in the newspaper report. This will no doubt be put right in the compte rendu.)

4. The total suppression of labour by children below the age of fourteen and protection of children up to the age of eighteen. (Several bodies proposed the substitution of the respective ages of sixteen and twenty.)

5. Complete technical and professional education.

(The full meaning of this resolution was brought out by a subsequent resolution, one of the most immediately important

perhaps proposed at the Congress, which demanded free education and free maintenance for the children by the State, seeing that in the interest of the community they were prevented from working. For this supplementary resolution the English delegates, including the Trade Unionists, voted unanimously and so did the other nationalities.)

6. Overtime to be paid for at double rates and limited to four hours in the twenty-four.

(The English delegates opposed this, being in favour of entire abolition of overtime save in unavoidable cases of necessity, of which the workers should judge.)

7. Civil and criminal responsibility of employers for accidents.

8. An adequate number of qualified inspectors to be nominated by the workers themselves and paid by the State or the Commune, with full powers to enter workshops, factories, or religious establishments at any time and to examine apprentices at their own homes.

(Dr. de Poepe moved and the Congress unanimously carried what were in effect two supplementary clauses to this resolution (a) against the use of all poisonous or injurious materials in manufacture (b) in favour of the appointment of International inspectors as well as national.)

9.. Workshops organised by the workers with subventions from the municipalities or the State.

10. Prison and workhouse labour to be conducted under the same conditions as free labour and to be employed as far as possible on great public works.

(Mr. Fenwick, M.P., entered his protest against this clause. Its object, of course, is to prevent the competition of convict labour and commodities produced by convict or pauper labour with free labour or the products of free labour.)

11. That no foreign labourers be allowed to accept employment, or employers be allowed to employ such labour, at rates of wages below the Trade Union rates fixed for their trade.

12. That a minimum wage be fixed in every country in accordance with a reasonable standard of living.

(This somewhat vague resolution was on nearly every paper sent up to the Standing Orders Committee in some shape or other. The object, of course, is to supplement, if necessary, the Eight Hour Law. It was, I think, voted unanimously by every nationality).

13. The abrogation of all laws against the International organisation of labour.

14. Equal pay and opportunities for women and men for equal work.

To these may be added the resolution moved by Mr. Drew – in Paris, of course, we were all “citizens,” but we are back in bourgeois London – of the London carpenters that no contracts should be given by public bodies to contractors who worked their men more than the eight hour day or who paid less than Trade Union rates of wages; that also the State, the Municipalities and all public bodies or monopolies should be bound by the same rule.

But by far the most significant resolution in relation to this whole series of palliative propositions was that brought forward by the American delegate Waudby, supported by his co-delegates Bowen and Georgii. This out-and-out revolutionary Social Democratic resolution ran as follows:- “That this International Labour Congress declares that its resolutions in favour of a reduction of the hours of labour, the limitation of child labour and kindred measures, are not to be considered as expressing its full programme of Industrial Reform, but that those measures are demanded to secure the present mitigation of the hardships of labour, and to promote the leisure, education and organisation necessary to secure the ultimate ownership and control of all the means of production by the workers themselves; which, we affirm, is the only measure that will secure to labour its complete rights.” That resolution, so worded, was voted by each nationality in turn, not a single vote being given in any national delegation against it. I confess I rubbed my eyes as I looked round and saw Mr. Cooper, Mr. Eveleigh, Mr. Nieass, and the rest of our supposed-to-be anti-Socialist English friends with their hands in the air in favour of this emphatic resolution moved by an anti-Capitalistic Republican worker. But so it was. And Mr. William Morris displayed even more than the usual amount of eccentricity which we allow to men of genius as of right when he denounced the Congress of working men delegates who voted that resolution as a bourgeois Congress.

There was, indeed, nothing throughout the Congress which gave promise of more satisfactory progress in the near future than the friendly feeling which prevailed between the Trade Unionists and Social-Democrats from first to last. It is, of course, quite possible that some of the Trade Unionists who voted so steadily and spoke so earnestly in a Socialist sense in Paris may retire from the advanced position which they there took up in the face of all Europe, when, they return to the more reactionary influences which surround them in Great Britain. That remains to be seen at the corning Trade Union Congress at Dundee. But the majority will, it may be assumed, act henceforth on the lines of the resolutions which they voted for; if they do, then the day has gone by when the Trade Unions of this island can be used by political tricksters and party wirepullers to hinder the triumphant advance of Social Democracy.

On the question of international organisation there was far less difference of opinion than had been anticipated. The whole Congress was enthusiastically in favour of the maintenance of the national autonomy in relation to national tactics which had resulted in such a magnificent Labour Congress as that which we saw around us. The problem to be solved was how to reconcile this national self-management with the international agreement on international business which all admitted to be necessary. It was eventually decided that each country should establish its own correspondence bureaux in accordance with its own convenience; the various trades being earnestly entreated, besides, to federate nationally and internationally. In order, however, to maintain a centre to which all international correspondence should be addressed it was recommended by the Standing Orders Committee and adopted by the Congress that each country in turn should have charge of the international correspondence and should form the international centre for such correspondence. As Brussels was unanimously chosen for the meeting place of the next Congress in 1891 it was also agreed, after some friendly discussion arising from the fear that the Belgians might possibly be “nobbled” by the Marxist Germans, to entrust the Belgian Workmen’s Party with the management of this important business. They have a difficult task before them; but there is every reason to hope that their ability, zeal and enthusiasm will rise to the level of the emergency, and that they may even succeed in bringing about a complete fusion without sacrificing the national autonomy which assuredly England, France and America, not to mention other nationalities, can never forego in tactical matters.

This arrangement was taken throughout the Congress to signify the re-establishment of the “International” on a far wider and more permanent basis than had before been thought possible. It remains for us all to use our best endeavours to render the machinery worthy of the great cause of the emancipation of labour throughout the world.

Meanwhile it was unanimously voted that the resolutions should be sent to the International Conference of Governments invited by Switzerland to meet in September, but now postponed until next spring, owing to the attempt of Prince Bismarck to suppress the right of asylum in the brave little Republic. Unfortunately, the infamous sentences just pronounced upon the German miners who went on strike, the increasing bitterness of the repression in Austria, Italy, and elsewhere, as well as the refusal of the reactionary English Ministry even to discuss the palliative measures for which the workers clamour, give little hope of immediate action. In revolutionary periods, such as we have entered upon, history teaches us that the governing classes are rarely wise in time. The one object of “politicians” of all parties is to admit as little as possible and, by postponing any consideration of the proposals of the rising class, to defer the day of surrender. The Possibilist Congress was moderate in the extreme: that everyone is saying. It formulated for the moment only the irreducible minimum of the workers’ demands. That minimum ought to be immediately pressed on the governing minority by the workers in every country. On these matters Liberals are as much our enemies as Reactionists. In Great Britain, for instance, Mr. John Morley, Mr. Mundella, Mr. Labouchere, Mr. Bradlaugh, and Sir Charles Russell have lately declared one and all against even an Eight Hour Law. High time indeed, therefore, it is, that the workers should push aside both factions and should rely upon themselves alone. This was the feeling which pervaded the Congress and this it was which gave so much importance to the first steps towards the formation of a genuine “International.”

The discussion on “rings” and “trusts” brought forward by the English glass-bottle makers was somewhat desultory, as the Congress scarcely seemed to understand the enormous development of these “combines” in the United States. The French and Belgians were specially anxious to stop by law “corners” in the necessaries of life, or the raw materials of industry, as well as the system of national and even international boycotting of workmen by employers, where such workmen had been active on behalf of their class. Several instances of abominable tyranny were given in regard to this latter system of combination against workers, of which we have had experience also in Great Britain, the great object of the masters being to break down all effective association among their wage-slaves. Eventually, a resolution in regard to “trusts” proposed by Herbert Burrows, Bowen, and Greenwood, on behalf of the Social-Democratic Federation, the Knights of Labour and glass-workers respectively, to the effect that it was impossible to prevent these great capitalist combinations by law and that the only way in which to meet them effectively was by organising the workers nationally and internationally so as to capture the monopolies thus constituted was passed unanimously. Socialism, international Socialism, so it was argued, could alone successfully cope with these great “Trusts” which were themselves unconsciously working to bring about the complete co-operative organisation of labour. Throughout the debate on this point the genuine revolutionary and Socialist character of the whole Congress was manifested more clearly than ever. Not a single dissentient voice was raised as delegate after delegate referred to the increasing bitterness of the class now, and stated that the only possible solution of the fierce antagonism was the collective ownership of the means and instruments of production and transport by the entire working community. The formulation of palliative measures and the desire expressed for their peaceful adoption had evidently only strengthened the determination of the overwhelming majority of the 612 delegates of 400 associations of workers of all nations to rest content with nothing short of the full realisation of the complete Socialist programme. As monopoly gained ground among the capitalists, intensifying competition among the workers, and rendering their position more slavish and their continuous employment more insecure, so should thorough militant organisation be established on the side of the labourers – that was the opinion of all the assembled delegates.

None who were present will ever forget the scene of enthusiasm with which the proceedings terminated. Annie Besant was elected by acclamation by the French as president for the evening, and it was near midnight when in a brief but eloquent and stirring address she thanked the French in their own language for the work which they had done, recalled the splendid deeds of the past and the yet more splendid deeds which she looked forward to in the future, ending amid great cheering with the cry of Vive la République! Vive la Révolution Sociale! Lavy, to whose unfailing courtesy, good humour and unflagging zeal the success of the Congress was greatly due, wound up with one of the finest orations ever delivered on the spur of the moment. As he spoke of the crisis of the hour, as he referred to the men who would suppress what the people had gained of freedom in order to place the French Republic at the mercy of yet another military adventurer, the excitement rose to fever heat. Touching on what they had already achieved, and their confidence that more, far more, would be obtained under the Republic in time to come, he declared that the blood of the men of ‘89, and ‘93, and 1830, and ‘48, and ‘71, flowed in the veins of their descendants, and if need were they would fight under the Red Flag, as their fathers had fought, to save the Republic and to secure that emancipation of mankind from slavery which they had there met to obtain. It was no empty boast. Men of ‘48 and ‘71, Republicans and Communists, were standing below the orator in the hall, and as the crowd of delegates swept out into the cool night air there was not one but felt that the French had for a hundred years earned the thanks of humanity, and that Paris had been well chosen as the meeting-place of the great International Workers’ Congress of 1889.