In a valedictory tribute to the first International in 1874, Engels considered that it had belonged to the period of the Second Empire, ‘when the oppression throughout Europe prescribed unity and abstention from all internal controversy for the labour movement, then just awakening. It was the moment when the common, cosmopolitan interests of the proletariat could come to the fore . . . German communism did not yet exist as a worker’s party, Proudhonism was too weak to be able to insist on its particular fads, Bakunin’s new trash did not yet exist in his own head, and even the leaders of the English trade unions thought they could enter the movement on the basis of the programme laid down in the preamble to the Statutes’. In this detailed and extremely illuminating bookfootnote1 Collins and Abramsky reveal the relationship between Marx’s strategy and the situation of the British working class in the 1860’s and 70’s.

In a confidential circular to members of the International in 1866, Marx wrote that, ‘although the organization of the working class through the trade unions had acquired a certain degree of maturity and universality’, the Labour movement was totally lacking in the spirit of ‘generalization and revolutionary ardour.’ It was the task of the General Council, he continued, to ‘supply this deficiency’. Marx was not responsible for the inauguration of the International in 1864, nor did it seem at first that the International would prove a likely vehicle for Marxism. Engels remained frankly sceptical and advised Marx not to be drawn away from his theoretical work. The initial inspiration of the movement was Mazzinian rather than Socialist. The first General Council comprised 27 Englishmen and 7 foreigners, and the Englishmen nearly all came from trades based on London. The great catalyst of working class political involvement in the 1860’s had been the building strike of 1859—11 of the 27 Englishmen came from the building trade unions—and the building strike had been almost exclusively a London affair. Moreover, as the authors point out, it was the builders, and representatives of handicraft industries that had most to gain from international organization. The engineers and unionists representing the technologically advanced industries of the North felt no threat from the competition of European labour—it was simply not possible for Northern manufacturers to break strikes by importing continental labourers of equivalent skill, nor was it yet possible for European manufacturers to undercut Britain’s markets in manufactures.

The situation was very different in the case of the traditional skills and trades of London. Artisans laboured, not only under the threat of mechanization, but also in the shadow of importation of cheap labour from the Continent. The authors rightly draw a correlation between the comparative vulnerability of industries to competition from abroad and degrees of involvement in the International. But the cosmopolitan interests of London artisans were not confined to comparative wage rates. From at least the French Revolution there had been a strong London tradition of international radicalism. The authors mention this, but never really integrate it closely enough into their general argument. It was not simply that the corresponding societies had preached international brotherhood, and Harney had taught that ‘a blow struck at liberty on the Tagus is an injury to the friends of freedom on the Thames’, there is also evidence of quite spontaneous outbursts against the reactionary régimes of Europe, seen for instance in the treatment of general ‘Hyena’ at the hands of the London draymen, in the Garibaldi riots, and in enthusiasm for the cause of Poland.

Marx was impressed both by the organized strength of the trade unions, and by the international enthusiasms of the working-class leaders, a phenomenon particularly apparent since the last years of Chartism. In his capacity as tactful sage and conceptual thinker on the General Council, Marx hoped gradually to wean British proletarian leaders from the narrow horizons of liberalism and inculcate them with ‘a spirit of generalization and revolutionary ardour’. His method, he informed Engels, would be, ‘fortiter in re, suaviter in modo’. So the revolutionary ardour of the Manifesto was muted in the diplomatic phrases of the ‘Inaugural address’, concessions were made to Mazzini, references to Gladstone, if hostile, became guarded and polite. Marx intended to push the International, and especially the British section slowly towards a socialist position. This would be achieved by exploiting the positive features of the political situation to their fullest extent. Thus the authors show how he put all his weight behind agitations for the freedom of Poland and Ireland, since these campaigns relied almost entirely upon working-class support; the risorgimento on the other hand found little or no mention in the pronouncements composed for the International by Marx, since he considered that it was an issue which was in no sense class divisive. Above all the British trade union philosophy would have to comprehend more than the narrow expertise of industrial struggle. Marx told the Geneva Congress that, having started as agencies of scattered guerilla warfare, the unions must develop into ‘organizing centres of the working class in the broad interests of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction’.

At the beginning at least, Marx’s strategy worked. His intellectual ascendancy assured him a dominating position on the General Council and British delegates supported him at the congresses of the International until the end. Moreover, as he gained the trust of his British supporters, he gradually threw away his early caution, until the prudish phrases of the ‘Inaugural address’ were completely effaced by the unequalled polemic of the ‘Civil war in France’. He succeeded in committing some of the leaders of the ‘Model’ trade unions in favour of nationalization of the land and the eight-hour day. Yet for all their respect for Marx, British trade unionists (for all practical purposes, London trade unionists) remained impervious to Marx’s conception of class war. Applegarth, who, of all the trade union leaders, was probably closest to Marx, clearly, as the authors state, ‘saw the International not as an instrument of Revolution, but as a logical sequel to the successes already achieved by labour in his own country. He told the Basle Congress in 1869, ‘much that I have heard here were settled questions with us 20 years ago . . . now . . . we are in want of education and the state must give it free from religion. You want some of your obnoxious laws repealed, and we may help you there’. Applegarth, the authors rightly contend, considered the trade unions to be the fourth estate; he never envisaged a seizure of power by the working class let alone the abolition of classes. Writing bitterly to Engels about the surrender of the Reform League to Gladstone, Marx exclaimed, ‘once again the cursed traditional character of all English movements’ had appeared. Concessions dismissed at first as completely inadequate, had come to be regarded as victories merely ‘because the Tories cry: guard’. Yet, both the Reform Bill and the Royal Commission on the trade unions which followed, were regarded as victories by the working class leaders. Despite the Reform Bill crisis and the International, there was no crystallization of liberal and socialist positions in the 1860’s. Nor can this simply be explained away by the theory of bribery by liberal gold (although this certainly constitutes one reason for the behaviour of Howell and Cremer). Odger’s attempt to become a Liberal mp and Applegarth’s simultaneous flirtations with Marx and the industrial arbitration schemes of Mundella cannot be dismissed merely as aberrations. By the beginning of the 1870’s even Marx’s lifelong friend, Eccarius had become convinced that an alliance with the middle class was essential.