When the Communist Party overthrew the Tsarist regime in 1917 they frequently referred to the "Great French Revolution" for inspiration. They praised it as an example of how to destroy an existing social order and replace it with one based on principles of liberty, equality and universal brotherhood. In the Manifesto of the Equals (1796) Babeuf wrote, "The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution, one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last". Both regimes declared support for all revolutionaries everwhere in the mistaken belief that revolution was in the air, inevitable and permanent.
Babeuf claimed he was living in an epoch "in which a general upheaval in property relations becomes inevitable and in which the revolutionary uprising of the poor against the rich has become an historical necessity." Babeuf considered the French revolution a victory for the bourgeoisie rather than the proletariat and argued that, as the latter's thought processes had been fashioned by the Ancien Regime, a dictatorship of the proletariat would be required for an unspecified period prior to the introduction of democracy. His theory of a disciplined vanguard, acting in the interests of the proletariat, was later taken up by Blanqui and Lenin but was also present in Marx although the latter initially believed capitalism would be overthrown by the working class.
However, universal brotherhood in practice was an empirical failure. Support for the working classes of other nations was fine as long as it did not interfere with the national feelings of each nation. Although Marx was convinced England would see a revolution based on his analysis of class, the English workers were too steeped in practical action to be convinced by obscure economic theories. By the middle of the nineteenth century socialism had become synonomous with Owenism and similar movements. Marx dismissed such movements as utopian socialism and adopted the term Communism as an expression of his "scientific" version which claimed the proletariat was ready to fulfill its historic role by overthrowing the bourgeois state. He became active in the Communist League which had a chequered history from 1847 until it dispanded four years later. Marx, Engles, Georg Eccarius, Karl Pfander and Fredrich Lessner who were members of the League's executive, became members of the First International formed a dozen years later.
Marx had his opponents. Wilhelm Weitling, for example, tellingly observed in 1846, "In Marx's brain, I see nothing more than a good encyclopaedia, but no genius." In fact, in his lifetime Marx was considered a minor thinker rather than a major philosopher. By the time the First International came into being in 1864 there were sharp differences between Marx and several groups. The French Mutualists drew their inspiration from Proudhorn, looked for a peaceful transition to socialism and were opposed to Marx's statism. Mikhail Bakunin argued for a direct economic struggle with capitalism and, with some foresight, said the authoritarianism implicit in Marx meant that any Marxist party coming to power would be as oppressive as the ruling class they replaced.
Although the ideas of the International were based on Marx's conception of history, philosophy and politics, most of the International's members were not Marxist. The sharp division between marxists and anarchists resulted in a split and the establishment of rival internationals. Massive memberships were claimed but in practice, local sections were few in number and, according to one contemporary Italian observer, included "an assortment of intellectuals, eccentrics, poets, enthusiasts, altruists and fanatics with no specific programme or clearcut aim."
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune of 1871 quickly showed the emptiness of universal brotherhood as the working classes in both countries sided largely with their national leaders. The International was reduced to mouthing platitudes while Prussia's gains under the Treaty of Frankfurt created resentment amongst the French which made it easier for them to go to war in 1914. The Paris Commune provided a powerful myth in Communist history of how the transitional stage from capitalism to socialism might be handled. The International deteriorated into personal antagonism between Marx and Bakhunin over the analysis and prognosis of capitalism and socialism. It came to several ends in the 1870s.
Its successor, the Second International, was formed in 1889 and eventually floundered under the strains of ideological sectarianism, nationalism and tactics. The former was evident when Alexandre Millerand joined the French government only to be attacked on a divided vote by the French labour organisations on the grounds that "the participation of Socialists in a bourgeois government was in compatible with ther principles of the proletarian class struggle." In Germany Eduard Bernstein argued that Marx's prediction of an increasing impoverisment of the working class had been disproved while the complexity of social development rendered Marx's class analysis too simplistic. Bernstein's revisionism was condemned by revolutionary Marxists who insisted the ruling class would never surrender power voluntarily. This idea was still being peddled by Harold Laski as late as 1945.
In the final analysis it was war which killed off the International. When war broke out in 1914 calls for the working classes to rise up and prevent it fell on stony ground. The assassination of Jean Jaures by a French nationalist seemed to summarise the failure of the anti-militarist movement. The Zimmerman conference of 1915 marked the final split between the revisionist and revolutionary socialists. After the war it would be Soviet Union's version of Marxism which would prevail in the international organisation of communism but that's another story. Braunthal's account is weakened by his ideological convictions which appear in his account. Nontheless it is well worth reading and referring to, although overdue for a re-examination.Read more ›