The International Working Men’s Congress of 1889. A Reply to Justice

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In its issue of March 16th, 1889[1], Justice, THE organ of THE Social Democracy attacks the position taken with regard to the above Congress, by what it calls the “German Official Social Democrats” (whoever they may be), in general, and “the official organ of the German Social Democrats” – by which is meant the London Sozialdemokrat in particular.

The Sozialdemokrat has ceased to be an “official” organ ever since a decision of the Supreme Court of the German Empire made it impossible for our German friends to have such an “official” organ without being convicted of being part of a “secret society.” From that moment the paper claimed to be, and called itself, not even the organ of the Social Democracy but simply an organ of German-speaking Social Democracy.” Nevertheless, the Sozialdemokrat is proud of enjoying the full confidence of the German Social Democratic party, a party whose strength is but very inadequately indicated by the 770,000 voters it brought to the poll in 1887.

Justice observes, “that German Social Democrats, not only in Great Britain but also in America, hamper the propaganda of our cause by printing their newspapers in a language which not one in ten thousand of their neighbours can understand. This, though they themselves, in the United States at any rate, are obliged to learn English. Not only so, but they strictly confine themselves to their own national clubs.”

This reproach as certainly unprecedented. According to Justice, then, Germans living in a foreign country, are to give up the use of their own language, their only means of propaganda amongst their own countrymen, and are to become mere appendices to whatever movement may happen to exist in the country where they reside.

The Sozialdemokrat is German a paper, written for German-speaking people. Nine tenths of the copies printed go straight into Germany. It happens to be published in England, because a coercive legislation, worse than that applied by England to Ireland, compels it to go abroad, and because the Swiss government, under pressure from Bismarck, expelled its whole staff from Switzerland.

The Londoner Freie Presse is a local paper in the German language. It has now existed far more than three years which is proof enough that it supplies a want. Moreover, it may be left to speak for itself.

So may the American Germans. But to characterise the charges brought against them by Justice, we may state that the Socialist Labor Party of America, though originally, and even now mainly, composed of Germans, has numerous non-German branches – Anglo-American, Slavonic, Scandinavian, etc., – that besides its numerous German papers, which are all self-supporting, or, nearly so, it publishes an English organ, the Workman’s Advocate, and covers the considerable deficiency still left by it (see New York Socialist, March 2nd, 1889, report of the National Executive Committee), that it provides at its expense an agitator for the Anglo-American working class – Professor Garside; and that in America it has to encounter the reproach of being a batch of foreign intruders meddling in American matters which do not concern them, and which they do not understand. And this they are told, in spite of the fact that the American Germans either are, or intend to become American citizens and to remain for ever in America. And if the Germans in England, who are nearly all temporary residents in this country, were to follow the instructions dealt out to them by Justice, if they were to publish English papers for English readers, to take an active part in agitation amongst Englishmen, to interfere in English politics, to fulfil all the duties and claim all the rights of Englishmen, they would have the same reproach hurled at their heads, and, may be, by Justice among others.

As to the American Germans being “obliged to learn English”, I can only say I wish it was so. Unfortunately it is far from being the case.

Wherever German Socialists have been, they can lay claim to having, within the limits of their power, taken an active and successful part in socialist agitation. Neither in America, nor, in Switzerland, nor in the East and North of Europe would the position of Social Democracy be what it is, had it not been for the action of the Geremans resident in these countries They have always and everywhere been the first to bring into mutual connection the Socialists of different nations, and the German Arbeiterbildungsverein (now 49, Tottenham Court Road) was, as far back as 1840 the first international Socialist Society. If those facts are unknown to Justice, the international police and international Capital know them well enough. Wherever foreign Socialists have been molested, prosecuted, or expelled by the Continental police, they were Germans in three cases out of four and the Bill now before the American Congress to prevent the immigration of foreign socialists is chiefly directed against Germans.

Justice continues; “Now, as to the coming Congress. The Possibilist Party were unanimously appointed at the Paris Congress in 1886, where the Germans were represented and at the London Congress of 1888, to organise the Congress in 1889. No objection whatever was made at the time ... It was reasonable to hope therefore, that all the miserable personal bitterness of the last few years had passed away. From that time to this, however, the official organ of the German Social Democrats has persistently sneered at and vilified the Possibilists, and the attacks wound up with a caucus at the office of the Recht Voor Allen, on February 28th, which calls to mind the wretched intrigues that broke up the old ‘International’. This week the Sozialdemokrat is at it again, and quotes from Der Sozialist, of New York, an attack on our French comrades – a case of “pig upon bacon” indeed. Surely our comrade Rackow, and all independent German Social Democrats should join with us in an honest endeavour to put a stop to this petty and malignant bickering and wire-pulling.”

To understand all this, some knowledge of the history of the French Socialist movement since 1871 is indispensable. The French Socialists, crushed in the Commune of 1871, rallied gradually and came before the public again in the Congress of Marseilles, 1879, where they organized themselves as a Working Men’s Party; but in 1882, at the Congress of St. Etienne, there occurred a split. Each fraction called itself the French Working Men’s Party (parti ouvrier), but they are best distinguished by the names they called each other, viz., Possibilists and Marxists. Besides these two, there existed the group of the Blanquists, who maintained their separate organization, though generally co-operating with the Working Men’s Party at first, and, after the split, with the so-called Marxists. Each one of these different sections had again within its sphere of influence a number of Trades Societies (chambres syndicales) and other working men’s associations. On the whole the Possibilists were the strongest in Paris, while in the provinces the so-called Marxists had it nearly all their own way. Into the merits of the differences between these separate groupings I do not here enquire. It is sufficiently regrettable that they exist. But neither English Socialists, themselves divided into various groups, nor German Socialists, united since 1875 only, have a right to reproach the French with this want of union.

The Possibilists, in order to ensure recognition as THE only original Working Men’s Party in France, took to convoking International Conferences and Congresses, one in 1883 in Paris, another in 1884 (attended from abroad by English Trade Unionists chiefly), a third in 1886, where a few delegates from other nations were also present. At this Conference an International Paris Congress was resolved upon for 1889 and the Possibilists were entrusted with its organisation. But the German delegate Grimpe, as well as the Austrian, did not vote for this resolution. Anyhow, this decree of a conference, where besides the Possibilists and the English Trade Unionists, but a few Belgians, one Australian, one German, one delegate of a German society in London, one Swede, and one Austrian, were present, is but tantamount to the expression of a wish. How little the resolutions here formed were considered binding upon those represented, was proved by the English Trades Unions, who at their Hull Congress distinctly repudiated some of them.

In September, 1887, a meeting of representative members of the German Social Democratic party was held at St. Gallen, Switzerland. There, among others, a resolution was passed for the, convocation of an International Working Men’s Congress, to be held in 1888. When, about the same time, the London Congress was called by the Trades’ Union, the German Working Men’s Party were ready to drop their own Congress, provided they were admitted – simply admitted! – to that which was to meet in London.

The Trades’ Unions, in calling the Congress had declared that only bona fide delegates of bona fide Working Men’s societies should be admitted. But under our present Coercion laws in Germany, any Trades society, by the simple act of electing and sending a delegate to London would have called down upon itself immediate dissolution and confiscation of its funds by the Government. The condition formulated by the Trades Council amounted to a simple exclusion of all German delegates. The German Working Men’s Party then sent as delegate to London, A. Bebel, our well-known member of the Reichstag, accompanied by the undersigned. He called upon the secretary of the Parliamentary Committee and of the Trades’ Council, and conferred with representatives of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League. A lengthy correspondence ensued, in which the Germans tried to obtain a modification of the conditions of admission. But a decision of the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades’ Council was upheld and the door of the Congress was deliberately shut in our face. Upon this the Executive of our party issued its protest against such a Congress.

The Congress assembled. Never in the whole history of the working class movement has a Working Men’ Congress met under such humiliating conditions. All previous Workmen’s Congresses had held themselves to be sovereign. The organisers might make preliminary regulations, but any delegate might object to these, and then the Congress decided the matter finally. But this time conditions of admission, standing orders, method of procedure and of voting, subjects of discussion, in fact everything had been dictated beforehand by the Parliamentary Committee, that anti-socialist organ of the anti-socialist London Trades’ Council. Yet the Socialist delegates of the Congress submitted to this humiliation, because otherwise the Trades’ Council who had hired the room would have turned them out, and because they considered it more important – and rightly too – to exhibit before the world the existence of a strong Socialist minority among English Trades’ organisations. But they were bound to enter their protest, and that they omitted.

The resolutions of such a Congress can hardly be considered binding even upon those represented, and the very convokers of it, the Parliamentary Committee, repudiate them by refusing to take action upon any of these resolutions. (Report, Nov. 1888, page 2.) That they should be binding upon those who were not only not represented, but deliberately excluded, and who protested against it, is simply preposterous. Anyhow the Congress resolved that an International Congress should be held at Paris, 1889, and charged the Paris Possibilists with its organization.

While the London Congress was sitting, the French Trade Unions connected with the French so-called Marxists held their Congress at Bordeaux, and also resolved upon an International Working Men’s Congress to be held in Paris in 1889. A delegate from Bordeaux was sent to the London Congress, but only arrived in London to see it closed.

Further the French Possibilists had convoked their own national Working Men’s Congress to meet at Troyes in December last. But the Troyes organizers – their own people – considered it their duty to convoke to such a Congress delegates from all Socialist and working men’s organizations in France. Upon which the Possibilists gave up their own Congress, which was held in their absence by the so-called Marxists and Blanquists, who confirmed the resolution of Bordeaux as to a Paris International Congress in 1889. And this was in simple self-defence, for they knew only too well that by confiding the organization of their Paris Congress to the Possibilists, the London Congress had virtually, though unwittingly prepared the exclusion of all French workmen not under the influence of the Possibilists.

Thus, two rival Congresses were to meet at Paris in 1889. And, although Justice has kept its readers in absolute ignorance of the fact that important sections of French working men met at Bordeaux and Troyes in Autumn, 1888 (at Bordeaux 63 delegates represented 250 local unions, amongst others from Marseilles, Lille, Lyons; Roubaix; at Troyes 36 delegates represented 327 different organizations, local trades unions and Socialist circles), and resolved upon a Congress where they too might be represented; yet these facts came to the ears of the German Social Democratic Party. Accordingly the Germans considered it their duty to do their very best to prevent the consummation of these two rival Congresses, each of which would be in antagonism to the other, and both of which would be failures; and to see what could be done to make out of these two rump Congresses one real Congress.

The German members of the Reichstag, who constitute the Executive of our party; proposed therefore, for the purpose of attempting this, an International Conference; to which they invited both sections of French Socialists, and those other non-German Socialist organizations with which they were in relation and correspondence: This Conference took place at the Hague (Holland) on February 28th, and I was present, not as a delegate, but as a simple spectator. Both French parties had been invited, but the Possibilists did not put in an appearance. The Marxists had sent Lafargue. There were two Germans (Bebel and Liebknecht), two Dutch (Domela Nieuwenhuis and Croll), two Belgians (Anseele and Volders), and two Swiss (Reichel and Scherrer).

There were three principal questions to be settled: first, the arrangements for a united Congress; secondly, the establishment of such conditions of admittance as would prevent the exclusion of any group which might fairly claim to be represented; thirdly the sovereignty of that Congress as to its internal affairs: For the Possibilists, following in the footsteps of the Trades’ Unions Parliamentary Committee, had already issued beforehand the rules and regulations by which they intended the Congress to be bound. Not only the order of the day was there, ready cut and dried, but also, among others, a rule that not the Congress as a whole, but each nationality separately, should examine and pass the credentials of its delegates. Both this order of the day, and this method of verifying credentials might or might not hereafter be adopted by the Congress; but anyhow the right of the Congress to accept or refuse must be kept undisputed. And the more so, as the method of verifying credentials, prescribed by the Possibilists, placed in their hands virtually the power of admitting such French delegates only as they chose. It will be remembered how very nearly several English Socialist delegates at the London Congress escaped exclusion by a Standing Orders Committee in which the English Trades Unions were in a mere majority over the foreigners. And not only is Paris the stronghold of the Possibilists, but they intend to apply to the Paris Town Council for a grant, for the purposes of the Congress, of some 50,000fr. (£2,000), of which they would have the disposal.

The Hague Conference, then, unanimously passed the following resolution:

“The undersigned invite the Federation of Socialist Working Men of France (that is the Possibilist Federation) by virtue of the mandate given to it by the London Congress of 1888, to convoke the Paris International Congress in agreement with the Working, Men’s and Socialist organizations of France and other countries:

This convocation, signed by all the representatives of The Working Men’s and Socialist organizations, is to be communicated as soon as possible to the working class and Socialist public of Europe and America.

This convocation will declare:–

That the Paris International Congress will be held from the 14th to 21st July, 1889;

That it will be open to the working men and Socialists of the different countries on conditions compatible with the political laws under which they live.

That the Congress will be sovereign as regards the verification of credentials and the fixing of its order of the day.

The questions to be treated will be, provisionally, the following:

(a) International Labour Legislation – Regulation, by law, of the working day (day-work; night work, holidays, work of adult-males; of women, children)

(b) Inspection of factories and workshops, as well as of domestic industries.

(c) Ways and means by which to obtain these guarantees.”

The Hague, 28th February, 1889.

The delegates from Germany: A. Bebel, W. Liebknecht.

The delegates from Switzerland: A. Reichel, Scherrer.

The delegates from Holland: F.D. Nieuwenhuis, C. Croll.

The delegates from Belgium: E. Anseele, J. Polders

The delegates from France: Paul Lafargue.

Thus the Conference made every concession to the Possibilists. To the exclusion of their French rivals, the preparation and organization of the Congress was left to them in conformity with the London resolution. All they were asked to do was to sign a common form of convocation, equally to be signed by all the other parties interested; fixing, 1) the date of the Congress; 2) the general conditions of admission; and 3) the sovereignty of the Congress, as to its mode of procedure and order of the day. By binding all organizations who signed it, this common form of convocation offered the best, indeed the only means to insure the truly universal and international character of the Congress. The proposed general conditions of admission prevented a repetition of the scandalous exclusion of German, Austrian, and Russian delegates which made the London Congress such an incomplete representation of the existing Proletarian movement. The demand that the sovereignty of the Congress with regard to all its internal concerns should be expressly recognized had become a necessity after precedent attempted to be established by the Parliamentary Committee and imitated by the Possibilists. It merely claimed what was self-evident, and did not take away from the Possibilists the minutest particle of whatever the London Congress had conferred upon them; for neither did, nor could, the London Congress pretend to give to anybody in the world the power to make regulations which should be binding upon future Congresses.

That this resolution was come to, at the Hague, in no spirit of wanton opposition to the London Congress, is proved by the fact that two of the delegates who agreed to it and signed it – Anseele of Ghent and Croll of the Hague – were also delegates to London November, 1888; and not only delegates, but foreign presidents. It is further shown by the fact that both the Germans who were shut out, and those Frenchmen who were not represented there, were willing to leave the Possibilists in possession of all the power which the London Congress had conferred, and could confer, upon them. All they demand is that their own admission on equal terms be secured, and that the Paris Congress, once assembled, should itself finally settle its own internal affairs. And for daring to act in this conciliatory spirit, the Hague Conference is called by Justice a caucus.

The Possibilists have refused the hand of fellowship offered to them. They will allow the representatives of foreign Socialists to sign, along with them, the letters of convocation, but no French Socialists, outside their own ranks, are to sign. They pretend thus to be the only Socialist body in France, and expect us foreigners to recognize them as such. And moreover, they will not allow the Congress, as a body to determine the method of verifying the credentials; the rules and regulations ordained beforehand by the Possibilists are there, and the Congress is expected to swallow them.

Under these circumstances there is an end to the hope that the Congress resolved upon last November in London, and entrusted to the hands of the Possibilists, will become anything but a bogus Congress. It remains to be seen what action now will be taken by the groups represented at the Hague; at any rate they are determined to act in common.

As to the Sozialdemokrat, Justice says that ever since the London Congress, it “has persistently sneered at and vilified the Possibilists,” and calls upon all independent German Social Democrats to “join with us in an honest endeavour to put a stop to this petty and malignant bickering and wire-pulling.”

Justice has for years criticized, in its own peculiar way, the sayings and doings of German Social Democrats, and the Sozialdemokrat has never complained either of sneering and vilifying, nor of petty and malignant bickering and wire-pulling. We Germans are in the habit of practising a very plain-spoken mode of criticism within our own party, as well as with regard to other national sections of the proletarian movement. We know too well that to see that movement transformed into a mutual admiration society, or an Agitators’ Mutual Insurance Corporation, would be the greatest piece of good luck that could happen to our enemies. We therefore are not so thin-skinned as not to be able to bear without flinching the hits of Justice. But we have indeed not come to England to give up that right of free criticism which we have upheld in the face of Bismarck, and which Englishmen are justly proud of having secured by glorious revolutionary struggles in the past; and we shall take the liberty, whenever we think it necessary, to speak our minds about the “bickerings” and wire-pullings of French, aye, and of English Socialists too.

The Possibilists have for some time, followed a line of policy which has been far from being generally approved by Social Democrats of other nations; but the position they took at the last Paris election is indeed utterly indefensible. Under pretext of saving the Republic from Boulanger, they allied themselves with the most corrupt elements of Bourgeois Republicanism, with the Opportunists who for ten years have enriched themselves by sucking the blood of France; they worked and voted for a government candidate, a capitalist distiller, “a bad candidate – the John Jameson of France” (Justice 19th January 1889); and when a Socialist working man, Boulé, who had organized the late great strike of the navvies, was opposed both to Boulanger and to Jacques, they fell in with the bourgeois chorus: Don’t divide the great Republican party! – the same cry raised by the Great Liberal Party here more than once against candidates put up by Justice: as if you did not combat Boulanger more effectively by giving the working men the choice of voting for one of their own representatives, instead of placing them before the choice of either voting for Boulanger or for one of those very capitalists whose greed to put the wealth of France into their own pockets (as is very well explained by Mr: Hyndman in Justice of February 2nd, 1889) has alone made Boulanger what he is.

To do Justice justice, Justice has not defended this action of the Possibilists nor “their somewhat entangling alliance with the bourgeois party” (Justice, 28th Jan.); but it has never told its readers either that the organ of the Possibilists, the Parti Ouvrier; clamoured in its rage against the Boulangists, for coercive measures against that[2] “monstrous liberty of the press” and, against the right of association. Justice has done its best to keep all this, and the struggle for the working men’s candidate, and the 17,000 votes he after all, received, out of its reader’s sight. And because we speak out plainly upon this disgraceful action of the Possibilists, we are charged with sneering and vilifying, with petty and malignant bickering and wire-pulling, by that same paper which dares not defend the doings of its own Possibilist friends.

The fact is, the Possibilists are at this moment to all intents and purposes a Government Party – Ministerial Socialists, and they reap the benefits of this position. While the Congress of Bordeaux was forbidden by the authorities, hunted down by the police; and could not be held but for the shelter it found in the Town Hall of a neighbouring commune with a revolutionary Mayor, while the Congress of Troyes was repeatedly invaded by the police in order to prevent the display of the Red Flag – facts never censured, never mentioned, even, in the papers of the Possibilists – these “highly respectable” Socialists are hand and glove with the Charles Warrens of Paris. And they not only did not protest, but directly applauded, when the Paris authorities forbade the demonstration for an Eight hours’ working day prepared by the independent Socialists and Trades’ Unions.

Thus, if there be two Congresses held in Paris this year, one of them will be not only under the protection, but under the very patronage of the police. It will be patted on the back by the Government, by the Departmental authorities, by the Paris Town Council. It will be fêted and feasted. It will share in all the benefits and advantages lavished on foreign official visitors to the Bourgeois Republic.

The other Congress will be shunned by Republican respectability, watched anxiously by the authorities, and will indeed have to be thankful if left to shift for itself. For if any English delegates attend it, they may, in the midst of Paris, happen to find themselves back in Trafalgar Square.

E. Bernstein

Office of the Sozialdemokrat,


Note from MIA :

This pamphlet, an attack from the left on the French “Possibilists” in 1889 has never been republished since then. The original, often in poor condition, is available in a few libraries and on microfilm. In an attempt to make more of the works in English of early nineteenth and twentieth century Marxists available to historians and socialists it has been transcribed by Ted Crawford in 2002. - Proofread by Andy Carloff 2010.

  1. See : The 'Official' German Social Democrats and the Paris Congress
  2. We must never tire repeating that in the crisis in which we are, this liberty of the press must be suppressed.” Parti Ouvrier, 18th March (of all days!) 1889.