The International Workers' Congress of 1891

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The essay “The International Workers‘ Congress of 1891“ is Engels’ reply to the letter from the French socialist Charles Bonnier of September 9, 1890 in which he sets out the Marxists‘ tactics during the run-up to this international socialist forum. Representatives of the Belgian Workers‘ Party, whose stand had lacked consistency even during the Paris International Socialist Workers‘ Congress of 1889 (see Note 91), were instructed by it to convene the next congress together with the Swiss socialists. They received the same instructions from the parallel congress of the Possibilists (see Note 98) who, by acting through the Belgians, again sought to seize the initiative in convening international socialist workers‘ congresses.

Engels also set down the main ideas of his reply to Bonnier in his letters to Lafargue of September 15, 1890 and to Sorge of September 27, 1890 (see present edition, Vol. 49). Engels’ advice helped the French and other Marxists to convene and conduct the International Socialist Workers’ Congress of 1891 in Brussels along Marxist principles.

At the congress of the English TRADES UNIONS in Liverpool (September 1890)[1] the National Council of the Belgian workers‘ party invited the TRADES UNIONS to the international congress which is to be held next year in Belgium.

The Belgians were given a mandate by the Possibilist Congress to convene an international congress in Belgium. The Marxist Congress (I employ this designation for brevity’s sake) only gave them the mandate to convene a congress in cooperation with the Swiss; the place of the congress remained unspecified.

Short of a deliberate misunderstanding, the Belgians have therefore invited the Englishmen to the Possibilist Congress, the only one which they had a mandate to convene on their own. And the English accepted enthusiastically.

It will be impossible to make the young TRADES UNIONS of simple manual workers see that their good faith has been abused; that there will be two congresses in 1891, a good one and a bad one, and that it is the bad one which they have promised to attend. This is not simply my personal opinion; it is also the opinion of people who worked harder than anyone to get the TRADES UNIONS to enter the international movement. The campaign which the Sozialdemokrat waged against the English friends of the Possibilists[2] in 1889 could not be repeated this time with the same success. If there are two congresses, why did the others not invite us also, so that we could have made our choice? Now it’s too late. That is what these practical men will say. They have accepted the Belgians’ invitation and they will go to the congress which is to be held in Belgium. That is absolutely certain; unless the Belgians and the Possibilists repel them by committing some unequalled stupidities; but they will not commit these stupidities.

This situation is the inevitable consequence of the mistakes committed by the Marxist Congress. The most important question was left unresolved—that of the future congress. Even worse, any solution was rendered almost impossible in that the convening was entrusted to two national committees, Belgian and Swiss, without whose prior agreement even the smallest step could not be taken—the surest way of ensuring that nothing would be done. And again, just as after the conference at The Hague,[3] the Belgians, instead of staying within the limits of the mandate given to them, acted purely in their own interests. They wished to make sure that the congress was held in Belgium, and they are convening it, without worrying about their Swiss co-mandatees. I have no wish to cast doubt on the sincerity and good intentions of the Belgian National Council; but, in practice, by the course of action which it has chosen, it is managing the affairs of the Possibilists at our expense. Instead of blaming the others, let us recognise that we are but suffering the consequences of our own failings. (Do not let us blame them too much; the mandate which we gave them virtually invited them not to take it literally.)

We have placed ourselves in a sort of impasse, in a situation in which we cannot move, whereas our rivals are acting. How can we escape from it?

First of all, it is certain that new attempts will be made from more than one quarter to prevent the “scandal“ of two rival working men’s congresses. We would not be able to reject these attempts; on the contrary, if there is a repetition of the “scandal“ it is in our greatest interest to ensure that the responsibility falls on the Possibilists and their allies. Anyone who has the slightest experience of the international movement knows that in the event of a split he who provokes it, or appears to provoke it, is always in the wrong in the eyes of the workers. Therefore, in the event that there are two congresses in 1891, let us act in such a way that it is not we who can be accused of being the cause.

If it is certain that these attempts to effect a union will be made—should we await them passively? Then we would be running the risk that at the last minute the Possibilists and their allies might present us with an ultimatum full of traps (such as we are familiar with)—traps hidden beneath soothing verbiage, so that the general public should not see any harm in it, whilst we would not be able to accept; this, then, is the fine situation facing us: either accept and walk into the trap with eyes wide open, or refuse and carry the blame, in the eyes of the workers, for having brought about the collapse of the socialist union by sheer, inexplicable obstinacy!

In a word, the situation is quite intolerable. We must escape from it. How? By acting. Let us no longer sit back and rely on the mandate given to the Belgians and the Swiss—let us take the matter into our own hands.[4]

Would the union of the two congresses be a regrettable thing as far as we are concerned? Let us examine the question.

We may count, for certain, on 1) the French Collectivists[5] and Blanquists (the latter reduced by the large numbers that deserted to the Boulangist camp[6]), 2) the Germans, 3) the Austrians, 4) the Spanish socialists, 5) the “revolutionary“ Danes,[7] 1/5 of the Danish socialists, 6) the Swedes and perhaps some Norwegians, 7) the Swiss, 8) the banished Russians and Poles.

The rival congress would comprise 1) the French Possibilists, 2) the English TRADES UNIONS, which would be represented en masse, and the English SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC FEDERATION, which has profited from the general upswing of the movement in England, 3) the Belgians, 4) the Dutch, 5) the Spanish trade unions from Barcelona, etc., 6) probably the Portuguese trade unions, 7) the Italians, 8) the “reformist“ Danes, 4/5 of the socialist mass in Denmark, who might attract a few Norwegians, too.

According to circumstances the Belgians and the Dutch would come along to be represented at our congress also; on the other hand, the Swiss would be capable of sending some delegates to the Possibilist congress.

It follows that this time the Possibilists would have a much more respectable army than in 1889. If we have the Germans, they will balance them with the English, lost to us by our inaction and clumsiness; as for the others, they have as many nationalities as we, if not more. And with their skill in inventing mandates and fictitious representatives they would leave us a long way behind. Let us add that if we carry on with the system of inaction implemented hitherto, the blame for the split would certainly fall on us, which would cause a further reduction in the strength of our congress.

Let us now suppose that the merger has taken place. Then our strength will be swollen by all those who up to the present have been neutral because of the “scandal“ of the split: the Belgians, the Dutch, the Italians; they will inevitably attract the new English TRADES UNIONS, formed out of excellent elements, still pliable but well intentioned and intelligent. We have already taken root there; the contact of the French Collectivists and the Germans would be enough to bring them still closer to us, all the more so as the S.D.F., whom with its overbearing airs they find repugnant, is the pledged ally of the Possibilists. The Belgians only want congresses where they can take the lead and which the Possibilists have procured for them, particularly a big congress at Brussels. If we help them to bring about a merger in their country, the Flemish, who are the better element in their ranks, will side with us and will balance the Possibilist tendencies of the Bruxellois. The Dutch are fanatically keen on a merger, but they are far from being Possibilists.

What are for us the indispensable conditions?

1) That the joint congress should be convened by the two countries mandated by the two congresses of 1889. The Belgians will convene in the name of the Possibilist mandate, and the Belgians and the Swiss jointly in the name of our mandate, form to be determined.

2) That the congress should be its own master. The rules and regulations, agendas and resolutions of the preceding congresses do not exist for it. It makes its own rules, the method of checking the mandates, and its agenda without being bound by any precedent. No committee, whether appointed by one of the preceding congresses, or during the course of the merger negotiations, has the right to bind the congress in all matters.

3) The terms on which the various working men’s associations are to be represented, and their proportions, will be laid down beforehand (definite proposals are desirable, it is not up to me to lay them down).

4) A committee whose composition remains to be decided will be instructed to draft plans for the rules, the checking of mandates, and an agenda, on which points the congress will make the final decision.

  1. The congress of the British Trades Unions was held in Liverpool from September 1 to 6, 1890. Taking part in it were about 460 delegates representing over 1.4 mln workers organised in trade unions. For the first time, the congress attracted a substantial number of representatives of the new trade unions, strongly influenced by the British socialists. Despite the resistance of the old trade-union leaders, the congress passed a resolution demanding the legal introduction of the 8-hour day and declared it expedient for the trade unions to take part in the activities of international workers’ associations. The congress resolved to send delegates to the international socialist workers‘ congress to be held in Brussels.
  2. The reference is to two pamphlets, The International Working Men's Congress of 1889. A Reply to "Justice", which appeared in London as a separate edition in English in March 1889 and in German in Der Sozialdemokrat, Nos 13 and 14, March 30 and April 6, 1889, and The International Working Men's Congress of 1889. A Reply to the "Manifesto of the Social Democratic Federation" published as a pamphlet in English in June 1889 in London. A passage from it was carried by Der Sozialdemokrat, No. 24, June 15, 1889. The pamphlets, written by Eduard Bernstein editor of Der Sozialdemokrat, on Engels' suggestion and edited by him, dealt with the actions of the Possibilists and the Social Democratic Federation leaders during the preparations for the International Socialist Workers' Congress in Paris (see Note 91).
  3. The International Socialist Conference at The Hague, at which participants in the socialist movement in Germany, France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland were present, was held on February 28, 1889. It was convened on Engels' suggestion by the Social-Democratic group in the German Reichstag to work out the terms for convening the International Socialist Workers' Congress in Paris (see Note 91). The Possibilists were invited but refused to take part in the conference, and later declined to recognise its resolutions. The Conference defined the rights, the time and the agenda of the congress.
  4. The following six paragraphs up to the words "What are for us the indispensable conditions" are crossed by a vertical line in the manuscript.—Ed.
  5. In the French socialist movement of the 1870-80s, the Collectivists were the followers of Marxism who advocated socialisation of the means of production and active involvement in the political struggle on the part of the working class. The trend was headed by Paul Lafargue and Jules Guesde (hence the Guesdists, another and more common name for the French Marxists). In 1879, they and some other socialist groups formed the Workers' Party (Parti ouvrier), which, however, immediately succumbed to ideological dissent. In 1882 it split into the Marxists (Guesdists) and the Possibilists (see Note 98). The Marxist trend retained the original name.
  6. See Note 77.
  7. The "revolutionary" Danes, the revolutionary minority in the Social-Democratic Party of Denmark who grouped around the Arbeideren (Workers) newspaper and opposed the party's reformist course. Expelled from the party, they founded their own organisation in 1889, which, however, failed to grow into a strong proletarian party owing to the sectarian line followed by its leadership.